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Austria v. Altmann

    Brief Fact Summary. The United States federal courts hearing of an action brought by Altmann (P) was strongly contended by Austria (D) on the premise that the United States federal courts did not have the jurisdiction to entertain the case. Austria also claimed that the displayed art in an Austrian Museum which was highly valuable was obtained unlawfully during and after the World War II and that the art rightly belonged to her.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Claims which relies on conduct that occurred prior to the enactment of the FSIA and prior to the United States adoption of the “restrictive theory†of sovereign immunity in 1952 is applicable to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.

    Facts. Altmann (P) brought suit against Austria (D) and the Austrian Gallery (Gallery) (D) when she learnt that certain valuable art works which belonged to her uncle and was seized or expropriated by Austria (D) after World War II. This suit was filed in a federal district court to recover the arts which consisted of six paintings by Gustav Klimt. She also based her ownership of the painting on the premise that her uncle had willed the paintings to her before he fled Austria.
    Austria (D) and the Gallery (D) however prayed the court to dismiss the suit against them. The FSIA applicability of denial of sovereign immunity through an exception for cases in which rights in property have taken in violation of international law was claimed by Altmann (P). The prayer of Austria (D) was not granted by the district court but it was granted by the court of appeals. Certiorari was however granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

    Issue. Are claims which rely on conduct that occurred prior to the enactment of the FSIA and prior to the United States adoption of the “restrictive theory†of sovereign immunity in 1952 applicable to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976?

    Held. (Stevens, J) Yes. Claims which relies on conduct that occurred prior to the enactment of the FSIA and prior to the United States adoption of the “restrictive theory†of sovereign immunity in 1952, is applicable to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.  Foreign sovereign immunity is not constitutionally required but it is a matter of grace and comity.
    Prior to 1952, the Court had long deferred to Executive Branch sovereign immunity decisions but subsequently, the Executive policy was to request immunity in all actions against friendly sovereigns. So the State Department began the application of the “restrictive theory†of sovereign immunity which threw immunity decisions into some disarray. In order to remedy the problems associated with the determination of the existence of immunity, the FSIA was enacted by Congress to codify the restrictive principle and transfer primary responsibility for immunity determinations to the Judicial branch.
    The Congress intention was for courts to find solutions to claims that are in conformity with the principles of FSIA regardless of when the underlying conduct happened. This conclusion is supported by the structure of the FSIA because most of its provisions unquestionably apply to cases arising out of conduct that occurred before 1976 and its procedural provisions undoubtedly apply to all pending cases.
    The application of the FSIA to pending cases, regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred is in consonance with two of the FSIA’s principal aims which are the classification of rules judges should apply in resolving sovereign immunity claims and the elimination of political participation in the resolution of such claims. But these principals does not curtail the State Department from filing statements of interest which suggests that courts should refrain from exercising jurisdiction in particular cases that implicate foreign immunity.
    Also, the holding does not express an opinion on whether deference should be granted such filings in cases within the purview of the FSIA.  The issue should thus be resolved by the holding concerns only the interpretation of the FSIA’s reach-a “pure question of statutory construction……well within the province of the Judiciary.†Affirmed.

    Discussion. Immunity is recogniszed under the “restrictive theory†with regards to a foreign state’s sovereign or public acts (jure imperii), but not its private acts (jure gestioris). The classical or absolute theory of sovereign immunity is “restrictedâ€, which implies that a sovereign cannot without his consent, be made a respondent in the courts of another sovereign.


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