While foreigners may sue the United States under the Alien Tort Law, American citizens may also use the federal courts to sue foreign governments. In recent years an increasing number of U.S. citizens have gone to court seeking remedies for injuries that occurred in another nation or that were the fault of another nation, and many of these suits stem from the World War Two era and the Holocaust. Although the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 generally protects foreign nations from suits in American courts, there are some explicit exceptions.
Maria Altmann, an 88-year-old woman, sued Austria under one of these exceptions, seeking to have the Austrian government return six Gustav Klimt paintings, now worth perhaps $150 million, that include a portrait of her aunt. The paintings had hung in the home of Ms. Altmann's uncle and aunt, Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. Her will asked that after her death, her husband donate the paintings to the Austrian national gallery. She died in 1925, but her husband chose to keep the paintings, and he fled Austria after the Nazis took that country over in 1938. He rewrote his will to leave his property to his relatives, of which Ms. Altmann is one. After his departure, Nazi lawyers seized the paintings and put them in the gallery, where Austria wants them to remain as national treasures. They are among some 600,000 works of art stolen by the Nazis during Hitler's rule.
The legal question before the justices was whether Altman could sue under a law for conduct that had occurred three decades or more before the law had been enacted. The Bush administration sided with Austria, claiming that opening federal courts would harm the United States in its relations with other nations. The Court's retroactivity jurisprudence is very complex, and lower federal courts are split on when decisions -- or statutes -- should be applied retroactively. In this case, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said that Ms. Altmann's suit could go forward.
The high court agreed in Republic of Austria v. Altmann (2004). By a 6-3 vote the Court, speaking through Justice Stevens, did not return the art, but said only that Ms. Altmann could pursue her claim in federal court. He also noted that the ruling was very narrow, indicating that the United States and foreign governments will still be able to argue in such cases that sovereign immunity -- the doctrine that governments may not be sued without their consent -- should apply, or that suits should fail because of the statute of limitations. As for the retroactivity issue, Stevens concluded that when Congress passed the law it wrote in certain exceptions because there is "clear evidence that Congress intended the act to apply to preenactment conduct."
One week later the Court cleared the way for other Holocaust- and war-related cases to go forward. It ordered a lower court to reconsider if Holocaust survivors and heirs can sue the French national railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. That case was one of four the justices returned to lower courts for reconsideration in light of the Altmann decision. The other cases involved claims that women were used by Japan during the war as sex slaves, that Austria is responsible for stolen art, and that Poland took Jewish families' land. An appeals court had already ruled that the French railroad was not protected from litigation in American courts, while the others had been put on hold pending the high court decision in Altmann.