The suit argues that by doing business with South Africa, the companies abetted the racist former regime.
The high court announced Monday that it could not hear a case involving 11 consolidated lawsuits against more than 50 international corporations. Four justices recused themselves from consideration of the case apparently due to potential conflict, leaving only a five-justice court to consider whether to take up the suit.
In a brief order, the court said it lacked the necessary quorum. "Since a majority of the qualified justices are of the opinion that the case cannot be heard and determined in the next term of the court, the judgment [of the lower court] is affirmed," the unsigned order says.
The action returns the massive case to a federal district judge to hash out an array of additional legal issues. And it guarantees another round of extensive, high-stakes litigation over the use of American courts to enforce international human rights standards.
The plaintiffs are South African residents who suffered under the racist regime from 1948 to 1994. At one point in the litigation they reportedly sought $400 billion in damages, not from the South African government or its former officials but from companies that did business in South Africa during that time period.
The suit is being brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which permits individuals to sue in American courts for certain violations of international law.
The core allegation is that the corporations actively and willingly collaborated with the South African government to perpetuate the repressive, race-based system of apartheid.
The corporations deny the charge and are urging the courts to dismiss the case.
"None of the plaintiffs' many complaints and amended complaints alleges that [the companies] took specific steps for the purpose of furthering apartheid," wrote lawyer Francis Barron in his brief on behalf of the corporations.
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