Court Battles

Supreme Court weighs property theft claims by Holocaust victims

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The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a pair of cases that concern whether U.S. courts have the power to take up lawsuits brought by Holocaust victims and their heirs against foreign governments who they claim stole property as part of their persecution of European Jews. 

The disputes Monday turned on fairly technical questions about the scope of American courts in the international sphere but played out against the searing backdrop of genocide and infamous mid-20th century human rights atrocities. 

One central issue in the cases was whether the alleged property theft itself ran afoul of international law, which would give the Holocaust survivors a stronger claim for relief in U.S. courts.

“Hungary took everything the plaintiffs owned, including possessions necessary to survive, such as shelter, clothing and medicine,” Sarah Harrington, a lawyer for the Hungarian Jewish plaintiffs told the justices. “And the undisputed purpose of Hungary’s takings was to bring about the physical destruction of Jews in Hungary.”  

“That is genocide,” she continued. “And it is hard to imagine a more vivid example of property takings that themselves violate international law.” 

One case involved the descendants of German Jews whose forebears were allegedly forced to sell their fine art collection, priced in current dollars at around $250 million, for about a third of its value. The collection was later allegedly gifted to Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler and is now in the possession of a German government agency. 

A second lawsuit was brought by 14 Jewish survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust against the government of Hungary. Another defendant in the case is a state-owned railway that was used to forcibly transport hundreds of thousands of Jews from Hungary during the WWII-era. 

Plaintiffs in the Germany case are suing for either $250 million or for the return of the medieval art collection. In the Hungary case, the survivors seek compensation for property that was stolen from them and their families.

Both Germany and Hungary lost on various grounds in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017, prompting their appeals to the Supreme Court.

The foreign governments argue that a U.S. law, known as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), should bar the plaintiffs’ claims. Alternatively, the say, possible foreign policy implications for the U.S. should deter American courts from involving themselves in these foreign-based disputes.

The Trump administration argued Monday in support of Germany and Hungary, though on narrower grounds than those advanced by the foreign governments.

The plaintiffs, for their part, argued that their property-theft claims fit within an exception to the FSIA that allows U.S. courts to hear disputes involving “property taken in violation of international law.”

But some members of both the liberal and conservative wings of the Supreme Court appeared wary of the prospect of American judges defining what constitutes genocide in order to determine the scope of U.S. judicial power.

“There have been many incidents in the past that some people claim are genocidal,” said Justice Samuel Alito, one of the more conservative members of the court. “Sometimes these are hotly disputed.” 

“I hope there won’t be more in the future, but, given human nature, that’s a possibility,” he continued, addressing an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Germany case. “Wouldn’t your argument require courts to decide whether a particular event that indisputably involved atrocities amounted to genocide?”

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