WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court tossed itself off a big case Monday.
The court couldn't take up an apartheid dispute involving some of the nation's largest companies because too many of the justices had investments or other ties with those corporate giants.
It appeared to be the first time in at least a quarter-century that the justices' financial holdings prevented them from taking a case.
The result is that a lawsuit will go forward accusing dozens of corporations of violating international law by assisting South Africa's former apartheid government. The companies and the Bush administration had asked the court to intervene, arguing that the lawsuit was damaging international relations, threatening to hurt South Africa's economic development and punishing the companies by using a fuzzy legal concept.
Four of the nine justices sat out the court's consideration of the case. Federal law calls for at least six to hear any case.
Short of the required number, the court took the only path available to it and upheld an appeals court ruling allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy provided no explanation for their decision not to take part in the case.
But those justices have ties to Bank of America Corp., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Colgate-Palmolive Co., Credit Suisse, Exxon Mobil Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Nestle SA, among nearly three dozen companies that asked the high court to step in.
Kennedy does not hold stock in any affected company, but his son, Gregory, is a managing director at Credit Suisse.
Last year's ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York "allows an unprecedented and sprawling lawsuit to move forward and represents a dramatic expansion of U.S. law," the administration said in court papers. The current South African government also has expressed its opposition to the lawsuit.
The case involves the Alien Tort Statute, an 18th century law that allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts over international law violations. The case is American Isuzu Motors vs. Ntsebeza, 07-919.