Republic of Sudan v. Harrison

Justia Summary

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act generally immunizes foreign states from suit in the United States unless an exception applies, 28 U.S.C. 1604. If an exception applies, the Act provides subject-matter jurisdiction in federal district court and personal jurisdiction “where service has been made under section 1608.” Section 1608(a) provides four methods of serving civil process, including service “by any form of mail requiring a signed receipt, to be addressed and dispatched . . . to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs of the foreign state.”

Victims of the USS Cole bombing filed suit, alleging that Sudan provided material support to al Qaeda for the bombing. The court clerk addressed the service packet to Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Sudanese Embassy in the United States and later certified that a signed receipt had been returned. Sudan failed to appear. The Second Circuit affirmed default judgment.

The Supreme Court reversed. Section 1608(a)(3) requires a mailing to be sent directly to the foreign minister’s office in the foreign state. A mailing is “addressed” to an intended recipient when his name and address are placed on the outside; “address” means “a residence or place of business.” A nation’s embassy in the United States is neither the residence nor the usual place of business of that nation’s foreign minister. Interpreting 1608(a)(3) to require that a service packet be sent to a foreign minister’s own office rather than to a mailroom employee in a foreign embassy harmonizes the rules for determining when service occurs and avoids tension with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. “In cases with sensitive diplomatic implications, the rule of law demands adherence to strict rules, even when the equities seem to point in the opposite direction.”