Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp

Justia Summary

German Jewish art dealers owned a collection of medieval relics. Their heirs allege that the Nazi government unlawfully coerced the consortium into selling the collection to Prussia for a third of its value. The relics are currently maintained by an instrumentality of the Federal Republic of Germany and displayed at a Berlin museum. After unsuccessfully seeking compensation in Germany, the heirs brought claims in the U.S. Germany argued that the claims did not fall under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act for “property taken in violation of international law,” 28 U.S.C. 1605(a)(3) because a sovereign’s taking of its own nationals’ property is not unlawful under the international law of expropriation. The heirs countered that the purchase was an act of genocide, a violation of international human rights law. The D. C. Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss.

The Supreme Court vacated. Under the expropriation exception, a foreign sovereign’s taking of its own nationals’ property remains a domestic affair. Historically, a sovereign’s taking of a foreign national’s property implicated international law because it constituted an injury to the state of the alien’s nationality. A domestic taking did not interfere with relations among states. The FSIA’s expropriation exception emphasizes property and property-related rights, while human rights violations are not mentioned. Germany’s interpretation of the exception is more consistent with the FSIA’s goal of codifying the restrictive theory of sovereign immunity, under which immunity extends to a sovereign’s public, but not private, acts. Other FSIA exceptions confirm Germany’s position; those exceptions would be of little consequence if human rights abuses could be packaged as violations of property rights and brought within the expropriation exception.