(KRT) More than half a century after the Nazis plundered Jewish holdings and scattered them across Europe, the Supreme Court yesterday considered whether federal courts in the United States can help descendants of World War II victims get their belongings back.
Maria Altmann wants to sue the government of Austria to recover $150 million in paintings she says the Nazis stole from her relatives.
The Austrian government, backed by the Bush administration, says that would violate its sovereign immunity and threaten diplomatic relations between the United States and many other countries.
The case is significant not only for its foreign policy implications two other such cases are pending at the high court but also for its emotional touchstones. Altmann has said that 65 years later, it remains a "simple matter of justice" for Austria to return her family's paintings, and she has emerged as a salient reminder of Nazi-era atrocities.
To decide the case, the justices will have to reconcile two longtime principles.
One says that other nations are generally exempt from being sued in American courts for actions they take within their borders. The other, which has developed since the end of World War II and was made into law by Congress in 1976, says there are exceptions to that immunity. Foreign nations, for example, don't enjoy the same protection for acts related to commerce and trade.
In Altmann's case, the Austrian government claims that the 1976 law would have to be applied retroactively to permit her suit.
Altmann says her family commissioned several paintings by a famous Austrian painter. The paintings came into Nazi hands during the war and were given to an Austrian gallery. A will left by one of Altmann's relatives left the paintings to the Austrian government, but Altmann says it's not valid. Her uncle had a will that contradicted the other and left her the paintings.
Lawyers for the Austrian government and the Bush administration told the court Wednesday that it would be unfair to change the rules about immunity now because Austria and other countries have long expected that these kinds of disputes would be settled diplomatically.
"We think it's basic fairness," that should prevent the suit, said Richard Cooper, a lawyer representing the Austrian government. Making the 1976 law retroactive would "change the legal consequences" for actions taken decades ago, Cooper said.
Thomas Hungar, a Bush administration lawyer, said that although no diplomatic efforts were threatened specifically by Altmann's suit, a ruling in her favor could allow suits to go ahead against countries that have touchy diplomatic exchanges with the United States.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked Hungar why the government couldn't object in court to those suits that threatened diplomatic efforts, instead of asserting that suits against foreign countries shouldn't be allowed.
In a tense exchange with Hungar, Breyer said the government could file "statements of interest" in those suits that were problematic.
But Hungar said the government should handle disputes between Americans and foreign nations particularly Nazi-era disputes and that the courts aren't needed. Hungar also told the justices that a ruling favorable to Altmann would open the United States to reciprocity by other nations. "It could open this country to claims in foreign courts," Hungar said.
Altmann's lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, said those weren't reasons to deny his client's claim. Not only does her case avoid diplomatic issues, he said, it also dodges issues that complicate other cases.
"Many of these cases raise statute of limitations problems or conflict with 'act of state' doctrine or interfere with treaties," Schoenberg said. "This case doesn't." He said that's why the high court shouldn't deny federal courts jurisdiction over all cases of this type. The high court, he said, should let the courts sort out the good ones from the bad.
"These issues should be litigated," Schoenberg said.
A ruling is expected by July.