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The justices appeared ready to impose new limits on lawsuits brought in U.S. courts over human rights violations abroad.
The argument was the first in a term that holds the prospect for major rulings about affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.
Meeting on the first Monday in October, as required by law, the justices entered the crowded marble courtroom for the first time since their momentous decision in late June that upheld President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The lineup of justices was the same as in June, but the bench had a slightly different look nonetheless. Justice Antonin Scalia was without the glasses he no longer needs following cataract surgery over the summer.
Chief Justice John Roberts formally opened the term and the court turned quickly to its first argument.
The dispute involves a lawsuit filed against Royal Dutch Petroleum over claims that the oil company was complicit in abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
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