WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday struggled with whether to allow two lawsuits stemming from claims of property taken from Jews in Germany and Hungary during the Nazi era to continue in U.S. courts.
One case was brought by a group of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. They’re seeking to be compensated for property taken from them and their families as they were forced to board trains to concentration camps.
The other case involves the heirs of Jewish art dealers and the 1935 sale of a collection of medieval Christian artwork called the Guelph Treasure. The heirs say the sale of the works, are now said to be worth at least $250 million, was done under pressure.
The question for the court in both cases is whether the lawsuits should be allowed to move forward in U.S. courts. Lower courts allowed them to.
During nearly three hours of arguments, which the court heard by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic, both conservative and liberal justices seemed concerned about closing U.S. courts to lawsuits like the two before them but also about improperly entangling American courts in foreign policy.
“Given the nature of international relations it's easy to envision cases where it would seem particularly inappropriate for United States courts to get involved in litigation,” Chief Justice John Roberts said at one point. But he went on to ask whether, even if courts weren't normally involved in such cases, it might still be “appropriate in particularly sensitive international relations cases.”
Both cases involve the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. It generally bars foreign sovereigns like Hungary and Germany from being sued in U.S. courts, though there's an exception for lawsuits involving “property taken in violation of international law.”
Germany and Hungary argue that federal judges can apply the principle of "comity" in FSIA cases and decline to hear cases better suited to being resolved in another nation. Several justices, however, suggested that could be problematic.
“I mean there are almost 700 district judges. You want every one of them to assess whether a particular lawsuit raises foreign relations concerns?” Justice Samuel Alito said. Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested the approach could produce “bedlam.”
The case against Hungary was filed in 2010 by 14 survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, including some who survived being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Four of them became U.S. citizens after the war while others became citizens of Canada, Israel and Australia. They're seeking to have their case become a class action.
The second case before the court involves a collection of artworks called the the Guelph Treasure, or the Welfenschatz in German. Some 40 pieces of the collection, including reliquaries and crosses, are on display in a state-run museum in Berlin. In that case, three heirs of a group art dealers who once owned the pieces are suing over what they say was the pieces' forced sale for below market value. The group has been unsuccessful in pressing their claim in Germany and brought a lawsuit in the United States in 2015. Germany and the state-run foundation that owns the collection have said that investigations in Germany found the sale was not forced and also that any dispute should be resolved in Germany.
The Trump administration has backed Germany, urging the court to dismiss the case. The administration has also backed Hungary, urging the justices to return the case to a lower court to determine whether American courts should refrain from weighing in on this particular dispute.
The cases are Hungary v. Simon, 18-1447, and Germany v. Philipp, 19-351. A decision in both cases is expected before the end of June.