Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Republic of Austria v. Altmann case brief, 541 U.S. 677 (2004)

Republic of Austria v. Altmann

541 U.S. 677 (2004)
Procedural History:
Appealing the affirmation of a denial of a motion to dismiss action to determine rightful ownership of art.


Austria (D) contended that the United States federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear an action brought by Altmann (P) claiming that valuable art  displayed in an Austrian museum was obtained through wrongful conduct by the Nazis during and after World War II and rightfully belonged to her. Upon learning of evidence that certain of her uncle's valuable art works had either been seized by the Nazis or expropriated by Austria (D) after World War II, Altmann (P) filed an action in federal district court to recover six paintings by Gustav Klimt from Austria (D) and its instrumentality, the Austrian Gallery (Gallery) (D). Altmann (P) claimed that her uncle had bequeathed the paintings to  her in his will  after he fled Austria (D). Austria (D) and the Gallery (D) moved to dismiss, claiming sovereign immunity. Altmann (P) claimed that the FSIA applied to deny sovereign immunity through an exception for cases in which rights in property have been taken in violation of international law. The district court denied Austria's (D) motion and the court of appeals affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.


-Does the FSIA apply to claims that are based on conduct that occurred before the FSIA's enactment and before the United States adopted a "restrictive theory" of sovereign immunity in 1952?


-The FSIA of 1976 applies to claims that are based on conduct that occurred before FSIA’s enactment and before  the US adopted  a “restrictive theory” of sovereign immunity in 1952


-Under the "restrictive theory," immunity is recognized with regard to a foreign state's sovereign or public acts (jure imperil), but not its private acts (jure gestionis).
-This theory "restricts" the classical or absolute theory of sovereign immunity, under which a sovereign cannot without his consent be made a respondent in the courts of another sovereign .


-The FSIA applies to claims that are based on conduct that occurred before the FSIA's enactment and before the United States adopted a "restrictive theory" of sovereign immunity in 1952. Foreign sovereign immunity is a matter of grace and comity, rather than a constitutional requirement. Accordingly, the Court has long deferred to Executive Branch sovereign immunity decisions, and until 1952, Executive policy was to request immunity in all actions against friendly sovereigns. In that year, the State Department began to apply the "restrictive theory" of sovereign immunity. Although this change had little impact on federal courts, which continued to abide by the Department's immunity suggestions, the change threw immunity decisions into some disarray. Foreign nations' diplomatic pressure sometimes prompted the Department to file suggestions of immunity in cases in which immunity would not have been available under the restrictive theory, and when foreign nations failed to ask the Department for immunity, the courts had to determine whether immunity existed, so responsibility for such determinations lay with two different branches. To remedy these problems, Congress enacted the FSIA to codify the restrictive principle and transferred primary responsibility for immunity determinations to the judicial Branch. The FSIA grants federal courts jurisdiction over civil actions against foreign states and carves out the expropriation and other exceptions to its general grant of immunity. In any such action, the district court's subject matter jurisdiction depends on the applicability of one of those exceptions. Evidence that Congress intended the FSIA to apply to preenactment conduct lies in its preamble's statement that foreign states' immunity " [ c ]!aims … should henceforth be decided by [United States] courts … in conformity with the principles set forth in this chapter,” § 1602. This language is unambiguous and means that immunity “claims” -not actions protected by immunity, but assertions of immunity to suits arising from those actions-are the relevant conduct regulated by the FSIA and are “henceforth” to be decided by the courts. Thus, Congress intended courts to resolve all such claims in conformity with the FSIA’s principles regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred. The FSIA’ s overall structure strongly supports this conclusion, since many of its provisions unquestionably apply to cases arising out of conduct that occurred before 1976, and its procedural provisions undoubtedly apply to all pending cases. In this context, it would be anomalous to presume that an isolated provision (such as the expropriation exception on which respondent relies) is of purely prospective application absent any statutory language to that effect. Finally, applying the FSIA to all pending cases regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred is most consistent with two of the FSIA’s principal purposes: clarifying the rules judges should apply in resolving sovereign immunity claims and eliminating political participation in the resolution of such claims. This holding does not prevent the State Department from filing statements of interest suggesting that courts decline to exercise jurisdiction in particular cases implicating foreign sovereign immunity. Nor does the holding express an opinion on whether deference should be granted such filings in cases covered by the FSIA. Instead, the issue resolved by the holding here concerns only the interpretation of the FSIA’s reach-a “pure question of statutory construction … well within the province of the judiciary.” Affirmed.

1 comment:

  1. I think "Analysis" part is highly problematic. The Court mainly looked upon the framer's intent on FSIA, not theory on state immunity which does not give compelling evidence on the issue of retroactivity.


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