Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Yesterday the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela v. Helmerich & Payne Int’l Drilling Co., covered earlier here. The case involves the expropriation exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which provides that foreign states are not immune from jurisdiction in U.S. courts when, among other things, “rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue.”
Justice Breyer’s opinion concludes that it is not sufficient to “make a ‘nonfrivolous’ argument that the case falls within the scope of the exception.”
Rather, state and federal courts can maintain jurisdiction to hear the merits of a case only if they find that the property in which the party claims to hold rights was indeed “property taken in violation of international law.” Put differently, the relevant factual allegations must make out a legally valid claim that a certain kind of right is at issue (property rights) and that the relevant property was taken in a certain way (in violation of international law). A good argument to that effect is not sufficient. But a court normally need not resolve, as a jurisdictional matter, disputes about whether a party actually held rights in that property; those questions remain for the merits phase of the litigation.
Moreover, where jurisdictional questions turn upon further factual development, the trial judge may take evidence and resolve relevant factual disputes. But, consistent with foreign sovereign immunity’s basic objective, namely, to free a foreign sovereign from suit, the court should normally resolve those factual disputes and reach a decision about immunity as near to the outset of the case as is reasonably possible. See Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U. S. 480, 493–494 (1983).
Part III of the opinion contrasts the FSIA with 28 U.S.C. § 1331, finding that Bell v. Hood’s approach to the existence of a federal question does not apply to the FSIA’s expropriation exception.
Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.