WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday decided unanimously against it The heirs of Jewish art dealers under the Nazi regime who wanted to sue Germany in American courts for artifacts said the dealers were forced to sell for a third of their value.
The case of the Federal Republic of Germany versus Philip, No. 19-351, concerned the Welfenschatz, a treasure trove of medieval religious art, the value of which is now estimated at 250 million US dollars. A consortium of three Jewish-owned companies bought the collection in the last days of the Weimar Republic and sold about half of it to individual buyers and museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art.
When the Nazi government took power, the collection aroused the interest of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s deputy and Prime Minister of Prussia. According to the heirs, he threatened the traders with political persecution and physical harm in order to force them to sell the remaining artifacts in 1935 for much less than they were worth.
The pieces are now in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. In 2014, a German commission found that the museum had legitimately acquired the collection. The commission said the sale to Prussia in 1935 was voluntary and came after a year of negotiations that resulted in a price about halfway between the two sides’ opening positions.
The heirs sued in federal court and a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia Circuit decided against Germanyand said the case could go on.
The question for the judges was whether the suit was excluded by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally prohibits lawsuits against foreign states. The law has some exceptions, including one for property expropriation.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote for the court, said the exception did not apply when a foreign government was accused of taking ownership of its own citizens.
The appellate court had ruled that the heirs could invoke the exception because the artifacts had been taken as part of genocide, based on a provision in the law that sovereign immunity does not apply in cases where “property rights have been acquired Violations of international law are controversial. “
Chief Justice Roberts said the appeals court took that sentence too broadly.
“We do not need to decide whether the sale of the consortium’s property was genocidal, as the expropriation exemption can best be understood as an indication of international expropriation law rather than human rights,” he wrote. “We don’t look to the Genocide Act to determine whether we have jurisdiction over the heirs’ property claims under common law. We respect property rights. “
The Supreme Court rarely cites the rulings of international tribunals in its rulings, but the Chief Justice made an exception on Wednesday and established this The International Court of Justice had decided in one case relating to Germany that “a state is not deprived of immunity because it is accused of serious violations of international human rights law”.
Chief Justice Roberts added that a full ruling could invoke lawsuits against the United States in foreign courts.
“As a nation, we would be surprised – and we might even take mutual action – if a court in Germany were to judge Americans’ claims that they were entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars for human rights abuses committed by the US government years ago. “he wrote.” There is no reason to believe that Germany’s reaction would be any different if American courts were to exercise the jurisdiction claimed in this case. “
The Supreme Court returned the case to the lower courts to examine “an alternative argument of the heirs” – that their relatives were not German nationals at the time of the 1935 sale and could therefore sue freely.
In your Letter from the Supreme CourtLawyers for the heirs said German Jews were deprived of the legal and economic rights normally associated with citizenship long before 1935. In answerThe German attorneys wrote that “laws that deprive German Jews of citizenship were only enacted after the 1935 purchase” and that the heirs “cannot and cannot claim that they are citizens Another Status.”
The court also issued a brief, unsigned decision in a similar case, the Republic of Hungary versus Simon, nos. 18-1447. It was brought in by 14 Holocaust survivors, including four US citizens, who said their property was stolen by Hungary and its state railroad, which deported hundreds of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps in the summer of 1944.
The court’s opinion directed the appellate court that allowed the case to continueto reconsider his decision in the light of the decision in the German case.
The Supreme Court has issued a third decision Salinas v United States Railroad Retirement Board, No. 19-199, Wednesday, so an injured railroad worker can pursue his case. It was the first 5-to-4 ruling in a dispute in the court’s current tenure, and it was remarkable how the judges split.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the tribunal’s three-member liberal wing, composed of Judges Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, to form a majority. Judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett disagreed.