Supreme Court takes up issue of art looted by Nazis

Las Vegas Sun 25 February 2004
Stephen Henderson

WASHINGTON - More than half a century after the Nazis plundered Jewish
holdings and scattered them across Europe, the Supreme Court on Wednesday
considered whether federal courts in the United States can help descendants
of World War II victims get their belongings back.

Maria Altmann wants to sue the government of Austria to recover $150 million
in paintings she says the Nazis stole from her relatives.

The Austrian government, backed by the Bush administration, says that would
violate its sovereign immunity and threaten diplomatic relations between the
United States and many other countries.

The case is significant not only for its foreign policy implications - two
other such cases are pending at the high court - but also for its emotional
touchstones. Altmann has said that 65 years later, it remains a "simple
matter of justice" for Austria to return her family's paintings, and she has
emerged as a salient reminder of Nazi-era atrocities.

To decide the case, the justices will have to reconcile two longtime

One says that other nations are generally exempt from being sued in American
courts for actions they take within their borders. The other, which has
developed since the end of World War II and was made into law by Congress in
1976, says there are exceptions to that immunity. Foreign nations, for
example, don't enjoy the same protection for acts related to commerce and

In Altmann's case, the Austrian government claims that the 1976 law would
have to be applied retroactively to permit her suit.

Altmann says her family commissioned several paintings by a famous Austrian
painter. The paintings came into Nazi hands during the war and were given to
an Austrian gallery. A will left by one of Altmann's relatives left the
paintings to the Austrian government, but Altmann says it's not valid. Her
uncle had a will that contradicted the other and left her the paintings.

Lawyers for the Austrian government and the Bush administration told the
court Wednesday that it would be unfair to change the rules about immunity
now because Austria and other countries have long expected that these kinds
of disputes would be settled diplomatically.

"We think it's basic fairness," that should prevent the suit, said Richard
Cooper, a lawyer representing the Austrian government. Making the 1976 law
retroactive would "change the legal consequences" for actions taken decades
ago, Cooper said.

Thomas Hungar, a Bush administration lawyer, said that although no
diplomatic efforts were threatened specifically by Altmann's suit, a ruling
in her favor could allow suits to go ahead against countries that have
touchy diplomatic exchanges with the United States.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked Hungar why the government couldn't object in
court to those suits that threatened diplomatic efforts, instead of
asserting that suits against foreign countries shouldn't be allowed.
Stephen Henderson

In a tense exchange with Hungar, Breyer said the government could file
"statements of interest" in those suits that were problematic.

But Hungar said the government should handle disputes between Americans and
foreign nations - particularly Nazi-era disputes - and that the courts
aren't needed. Hungar also told the justices that a ruling favorable to
Altmann would open the United States to reciprocity by other nations. "It
could open this country to claims in foreign courts," Hungar said.

Altmann's lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, said those weren't reasons to deny
his client's claim. Not only does her case avoid diplomatic issues, he said,
it also dodges issues that complicate other cases.

"Many of these cases raise statute of limitations problems or conflict with
`act of state' doctrine or interfere with treaties," Schoenberg said. "This
case doesn't." He said that's why the high court shouldn't deny federal
courts jurisdiction over all cases of this type. The high court, he said,
should let the courts sort out the good ones from the bad.

"These issues should be litigated," Schoenberg said.

A ruling is expected by July.
© website copyright Central Registry 2023