Associated Press 7 June 2004
By GINA HOLLAND Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Americans can sue foreign governments over looted art, stolen property and war crimes dating to the 1930s, a victory for an elderly California woman trying to get back $150 million worth of paintings stolen by the Nazis more than 65 years ago.
Justices said that the governments are not protected from lawsuits in U.S. courts over old claims.
Maria Altmann, who fled Austria, had attended the Supreme Court argument and said justices were one of her last hopes for the return of six Gustav Klimt paintings, including two colorful, impressionistic portraits of her aunt.
She filed a lawsuit against the Austrian government in federal court in California, and won rulings that allowed her to pursue the case.
Justices agreed 6-3, a ruling that emboldens victims of wartime atrocities to pursue lawsuits. Women who claim they were used as sex slaves during World War II have sued Japan, and Holocaust survivors and heirs have brought a case against the French national railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps. Those cases are pending at the Supreme Court.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that the State Department can still ask courts to dismiss such lawsuits.
But he said that suits are not barred by a 1976 law, or a 1952 U.S. government policy that shielded some countries from lawsuits while allowing suits against some foreign government commercial ventures.
Nazis had looted the possessions of Altmann's wealthy Jewish family, including the prized paintings that now hang in the Austrian Gallery. She and her husband escaped to America after she had been detained and her husband imprisoned in labor camp.
In a dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas said the decision «injects great prospective uncertainty into our relations with foreign sovereigns.»