Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act: Recent SCOTUS Decision

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act: Recent SCOTUS Decision

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act: Recent SCOTUS Decision


Last year, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) made multiple decisions addressing the application of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). This federal law was enacted in 1976, creating the legal presumption that foreign nations are not subject to the jurisdiction of American courts. There are exceptions, however, if the foreign nation’s actions are considered “foreign state activity” under Section 1605 in the United States Code. Below is one recent SCOTUS decision on this matter.


Philipp Case


The case, Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp, involves a 42-piece collection of medieval religious art known as the Guelph Treasure. The art’s estimated value is $250 million and is on display at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts. Phillip, the plaintiffs, were heirs of a group of German-Jewish art dealers who sold the work in 1935 to the state of Prussia during the Nazi regime after initially buying the artifacts in 1929. The legal issue was whether Hitler’s government forced the sale to the state.


The plaintiffs first brought their legal claim before the German government’s Limbach Commission, which determined that the sale was fair and that the art did not need to be returned. The plaintiffs then filed suit in U.S. court against Germany and the federal body responsible for the operation of the museum housing the artifacts. The plaintiffs argued that sovereign immunity does not apply and the coerced sale constituted an act of genocide, in violation of international human rights law. Germany argued that sovereign immunity applied and a foreign nation’s taking of the property of its own nationals fell under domestic and not international law.


The U.S. District Court rejected Germany’s argument and motion to dismiss, as did the D.C. Circuit court. Germany petitioned the SCOTUS, which held that while the FSIA may allow U.S. courts to have jurisdiction over sovereign nations when property is taken in violation of international law (“expropriation exception”), American courts did not have jurisdiction in the Philipp case because the exception does not apply when a foreign nation takes the property of its own nationals. In its decision, the SCOTUS analyzed both domestic and international law and found that neither supported the plaintiffs’ claims.


International Litigation Support


International litigation can become complicated very quickly. From determining which law applies, how to properly serve an overseas defendant, or deposing a witness in a foreign country, you should do your research. If you need litigation support for an international lawsuit, contact Ancillary Legal today. We can provide assistance for all your litigation needs. If you need assistance with court reporting, please contact Elizabeth Gallo Court Reporting. 


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