The Supreme Court delivered a major defeat Wednesday to the heirs of Jewish German art dealers in a lawsuit claiming a famous collection of religious relics was effectively stripped from them as the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.
Many of the relics now sit in a government-owned museum in Germany, so the heirs sued the German government seeking $250 million.
But, in a unanimous ruling, the justices said U.S. courts can’t be used to pursue claims that a foreign country’s citizens suffered financial damages through the taking of property by their own government.
Lawyers for the heirs contended that the owners of the collection — a trove known as the Welfenschatz which dates to the Holy Roman Empire — were forced to sell it at fire-sale prices as Nazi coercion and harassment of Jews intensified prior to World War II.
The heirs argued the sales were part of genocide under international law because they were essentially an early stage of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were eventually killed.
However, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the argument, saying the dispute was better viewed as one over taking of property than of genocide. Foreign governments are generally immune from suits in the U.S., but the exemption is nullified for acts that violate international law, such as genocide.
“We do not look to the law of genocide to determine if we have jurisdiction over the heirs’ common law property claims. We look to the law of property,” Roberts wrote.
Roberts also said the court would be risking retaliation against the U.S. by allowing this sort of suit.
“As a Nation, we would be surprised — and might even initiate reciprocal action — if a court in Germany adjudicated claims by Americans that they were entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars because of human rights violations committed by the United States Government years ago. There is no reason to anticipate that Germany’s reaction would be any different were American courts to exercise the jurisdiction claimed in this case,” the chief justice wrote.
A German tribunal considered the heirs’ claims and awarded no compensation, concluding that the sales in the 1930s were not made under duress.
While the Supreme Court decision is a major defeat for the heirs, it may not completely extinguish the case. The justices left open the possibility that the heirs could pursue an argument that those who sold the collection were not German citizens at the time. That would make the dispute an international one, which might leave a role for U.S. courts.
In other action Wednesday, the justices agreed to the new Biden administration’s requests to put off arguments in two immigration-related cases that were set to be argued in the coming weeks.
The court announced that it is setting aside for now the disputes over the legality of funding for President Donald Trump’s trademark wall project along the border with Mexico and over an asylum policy Trump instituted known as “Remain in Mexico,” that requires most asylum applicants making claims at U.S. border stations to return to Mexico to await hearings.
The Biden administration has suspended the border wall expansion and is no longer enrolling asylum applicants in the controversial program involving asylum hearings at the border. However, the latter shift appears to be largely symbolic for now, since coronavirus-related limits on foreigners entering the U.S. are still in place.
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