The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in two cases brought by Holocaust survivors and their heirs, regarding restitution and claims of property taken from Jews in Nazi-era Europe. The central issue in both cases is whether US courts have jurisdiction over such cases involving crimes overseas with no direct American involvement.
Both cases revolve around the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a statute that defines the jurisdiction of US courts in lawsuits against foreign nations at either the federal or state level. Among other things, the statute specifies conditions that must be met for an action against a foreign state to be instituted. If the conditions are met, the foreign defendant qualifies for immunity in any US court unless prohibited by statutory exception.
The first case, Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp, concerns such an exception: the “expropriation exception.” The exception revokes a foreign nation’s sovereign immunity when “rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue.” The case concerns the ownership of a collection of medieval reliquaries called the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, worth about $255 million. The collection was purchased in 1929 by a group of German Jewish art dealers. The group sold about half of the collection during the Great Depression. In 1934, the Nazi-controlled Dresdner Bank offered to purchase the remaining pieces on the behalf of the German state of Prussia. According to the plaintiff’s brief, the pieces have been on display in a public museum in Berlin ever since the parties reached a price of approximately $1.7 million in 1935.
In 2008, some “successors-in-interest” alleged claims that the sale occurred under duress and was therefore invalid. These heirs contend that the sale was not only forced but also below market value. Conversely, the German government argues that both the sale itself and the price of the artifacts were fair. The court must determine whether the expropriation exemption applies to the heirs’ claims that the German government took property from its own citizens within its own country.
The court also heard Republic of Hungary v. Simon, which asks whether a US district court may decline exercising jurisdiction under the FSIA “for reasons of international comity.” In 2010 14 Jewish survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust filed three separate federal class actions against the Hungarian government, two in Chicago and one in Washington, DC. They all sought to recover the value of property taken from them during World War II when millions of Jewish Hungarians were stripped of their property, loaded onto trains and marched to death camps like Auschwitz. Though no longer Hungarian citizens, all the plaintiffs were Hungarian nationals or lived in Hungary-annexed countries prior to the war.
After the district court originally dismissed the case, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, citing the US government’s “moral imperative to provide some measure of justice to the victims of the Holocaust, and to do so in their remaining lifetimes.” On remand, the lower court again dismissed the case, relying on international comity and the doctrine of forum non conveniens.
Both the German and Hungarian governments argued that the cases do not belong in US courts. The US, appearing as amicus curiae in both cases, supported the countries’ conclusions. Transcripts of both arguments are available here.