The Supreme Court made it harder Wednesday for terror victims to seize assets from foreign governments that support terrorism, finding a group of U.S. citizens injured in a Hamas attack cannot confiscate Iranian property held in America.
The decision, which President Donald Trump’s administration supports, hampers the ability of U.S. citizens to hold state sponsors of terror accountable in American courts.
The case arose from a Sept. 1997 Hamas bombing of a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, which left five dead and hundreds injured. Among the injured were eight U.S. citizens, who sued Iran in a Washington, D.C., federal court, as the Iranian government provides material support to Hamas.
Foreign states are generally immune from lawsuits in the U.S., though the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) provides several exceptions, including one for countries designated state sponsors of terror.
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The district court awarded the plaintiffs a $71.5 million judgement, which Iran refused to pay. In turn, the plaintiffs asked a federal court in northern Illinois to compel the University of Chicago to surrender Iranian assets held at the campus’ Oriental Institute. The assets — known as the Persepolis Collection — consist of some 30,000 artifacts recovered during a university-led excavation in Iran.
The Illinois court denied their request and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The property of foreign countries, even if held in the U.S., generally cannot be seized in a lawsuit pursuant to federal law and longstanding international traditions. As such, victims of terrorism are left in a rather unusual situation, as they can successfully sue foreign governments for damages, but often have no means by which to recover their award.
The FSIA does provide narrow grounds on which plaintiffs can recoup assets from foreign governments. At issue in the case was whether the act creates a general exception for terrorism cases.
The Supreme Court unanimously found Wednesday that no such exception exists. Instead, they explained, terror victims can only recover property from foreign governments if that property is subject to some separate exception provided by the FSIA. As no other exception appears to apply to the Persepolis Collection, the plaintiffs are unlikely to recover any portion of their verdict.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the court’s opinion.
The Justice Department filed an amicus (or “friend-of-the-court”) brief in the case urging the justices to find in Iran’s favor. The government feared its own overseas property could be jeopardized if the justices found in favor of the victims.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case due to a conflict. The Supreme Court is not expected to release further decisions this week.
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