Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., on Monday refused to block scheduled evidence-gathering in a case against Exxon Mobil Corp. and three affiliated companies, filed by Indonesian villagers complaining of abuse by guards at an Exxon natural gas plant in their country. Roberts, however, said the denial took into account a limit on the “current phase of discovery” in U.S. District Court, and left open the possibility that Exxon could ask again for relief later.  (The application was 07A546; the case, while continuing in District Court, is also pending on appeal to the Supreme Court — Exxon Mobil, et al., v. Doe I, et al, 07-81, awaiting a response from the U.S. Solicitor General, whose views have been sought by the Court. The Court has not yet decided whether to hear that appeal.)

The Exxon companies contended that the discovery process in the villagers’ lawsuit in District Court was interfering with U.S. relations with the government of Indonesia, because among the villagers’ claims are assertions that the Indonesian military participated in atrocities at the plant in Aceh province.  The villagers’ lawyer told Roberts that only a few depositions remained to be taken, and that there had been no interference up to now with U.S. foreign relations.

In a reply filed earlier Monday, Exxon contended that the villagers’ counsel was back in District Court seeking even more discovery.  While it said the current phase of discovery was scheduled to be completed by Jan. 14, it notified Roberts that the villagers’ counsel had sought a new deposition, to occur on April 16.

In a letter from the Court clerk to Exxon Mobil’s counsel, the companies were notified that the stay was denied “given the limitation on the current phase of discovery imposed by the District Court, without prejudice to renewal of the application in light of any further order of this Court with respect to the petition for certiorari, or in light of further developments in the District Court.”

Presumably, that cleared the way for Exxon Mobil to file a new stay application if the District judge authorized new discovery activity, or if the Court grants review in the pending appeal.  Here is the question the companies’ petition raises in the Court: “Where a lawsuit challenges the activities of a foreign government, and the Executive warns that the litigation itself, and not just the effects of a final judgment, would risk a potentially serious adverse impact on significant foreign policy interests of the United States, does the collateral order doctrine permit immediate appeal of a district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss under the political question doctrine?”

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