In debates over the scope of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), one historical document has played an especially prominent role. That document is a short opinion by U.S. Attorney General William Bradford, issued in the summer of 1795, concerning the involvement of U.S. citizens in an attack by a French fleet on a British colony in Sierra Leone. In the opinion, Bradford concluded that “[s]o far ... as the transactions complained of originated or took place in a foreign country, they are not within the cognizance of our courts; nor can the actors be legally prosecuted or punished for them by the United States.” He also expressed the view that the actors could be prosecuted for crimes on the high seas, while noting that “some doubt rests on this point” in light of the language of the relevant criminal statute. Finally, he stated—in an obvious reference to the ATS—that
there can be no doubt that the company or individuals who have been injured by these acts of hostility have a remedy by a civil suit in the courts of the United States; jurisdiction being expressly given to these courts in all cases where an alien sues for a tort only, in violation of the laws of nations, or a treaty of the United States . . . .
The Bradford opinion contains one of the few early historical references to the ATS, so it not surprisingly has received a lot of attention. Numerous academic articles, judicial opinions, and litigation briefs have invoked the Bradford opinion, for a variety of propositions. Reliance on the opinion has increased since the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, in which the Court cited the opinion in support of the proposition that the ATS provides jurisdiction over certain common law causes of action derived from the law of nations. As an illustration of its perceived significance, both sides discussed the opinion in the oral argument before the Supreme Court in the first hearing in the pending ATS case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.