The Supreme Court ruled against the descendants of Holocaust victims whose ancestors were forced to sell valuable works of art to Nazi officials for a fraction of their real value.
Under normal circumstances, individuals cannot sue foreign states in a national court.
According to CNN, the judges found that the plaintiffs’ claim did not meet the criteria to deserve an exception to this rule. However, they did not immediately dismiss the lawsuit, but sent it back to the lower court for review, where lawyers could find other arguments to support their case.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on behalf of a united court that the United States itself would find such claims inadmissible.
“As a nation, we would be surprised – and 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 United States government years ago.” Roberts wrote.
CNN notes that in 2010 another case was filed relating to property of 14 Holocaust survivors, four of whom are US citizens. The result was mentioned by the Supreme Court in its latest ruling.
In this case, the plaintiffs – directed against Hungary – demanded compensation for property and possessions that they said were confiscated by NSDAP officials in 1941. In most cases, their assets were either destroyed or stolen.
Hammer rests on open book; Image by Verkeorg, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.
To counter the restrictions of the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, they pleaded for an exception on the grounds that their goods had been stolen in violation of international law.
Hungarian government lawyers, however, said such a lawsuit would harm US foreign policy – they also pointed out that previous court judgments had rejected similar claims in order to avoid “international discord”.
This week’s verdict focused on Germany v Philippians, No. 19-351, which relates to the so-called Guelph Treasure, a collection of medieval works of art valued at around $ 250 million.
The New York Times reports that the Guelph Treasure was bought by a consortium of three Jewish-owned companies in the “dwindling days of the Weimar Republic”.
Around half of the works of art were sold to private collectors and museums. But when the NSDAP came to power, Hermann Göring – Hitler’s deputy and then Prime Minister of Prussia – became interested in the collection.
Goering allegedly urged the owners to take the remaining artifacts into his custody and promised political consequences to anyone who refused.
Most of the pieces that Göring recorded are now in the possession of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. The former owners of the treasure had tried to bring lawsuits in Germany but were dismissed by a domestic court which said the sale was voluntary.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated that an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act cannot be applied to litigation involving a foreign government confiscating the property of its own citizens, whether or not it was justified.
Roberts also found that a lower court decision supporting plaintiffs’ desire to enforce a genocide exception was too broad.
“We don’t need to decide whether the sale of the consortium’s property was genocidal, as the expropriation exemption is best understood as an indication of international expropriation law rather than human rights,” said Roberts. “We don’t look into the Genocide Act to see if we have jurisdiction over the common law property of the heirs. We respect ownership. “
Roberts and his colleagues will allow the case to be returned to a lower court to argue that heirs to the treasure may be suing because their relatives did not or did not have German citizenship at the time of the seizure.
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