Republic of Austria v. Altmann

PETITIONER:Republic of Austria, et al.
RESPONDENT:Maria V. Altmann
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-13
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 541 US 677 (2004)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2003
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 07, 2004

Andreas F. Lowenfeld – for the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français as amicus curiae
Deputy Solicitor General Hungar – argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal
E. Randol Schoenberg – on behalf of the Respondent
Scott P. Cooper – argued the cause for Petitioners
Thomas G. Hungar – argued the cause for Petitioners, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

Maria Altmann learned that the valuable artwork owned by her uncle had been either seized by the Nazi’s or taken by Austria after World War II. She sued in American federal court to recover six paintings from the Austrian Gallery. She filed the suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), which allows suits against foreign nations in cases involving “rights to property taken in violation of international law.” Austria, however, claimed that the FSIA did not apply in this case because the paintings were taken in the 1940s, when the United States embraced a different – and more extensive – idea of immunity that would have barred the suit. Because the Act did not explicitly state that it applied retroactively (that is, to actions taken before it was passed) Austria claimed that it was entitled to this broader definition of immunity.

The district court sided with Altmann, holding that the FSIA applied retroactively. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed.


Does the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 apply to actions that took place before its passage?

Media for Republic of Austria v. Altmann

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 25, 2004 in Republic of Austria v. Altmann

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 07, 2004 in Republic of Austria v. Altmann

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-13, The Republic of Austria versus Altmann will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

This case comes to us from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

It is a case that maybe of more interest to historians and art connoisseurs than to lawyers.

At issue is the ownership of six valuable paintings by Gustav Klimt, a famous Austrian artist who died in 1918.

The paintings now hang in the Austrian gallery in Vienna.

The plaintiff Maria Altmann was born in Austria in 1916.

She is a Jew who fled the country after it was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938.

She ultimately settled in California where she now resides.

Her aunt Adel is the subject of two of the paintings at issue.

All six of them hung in her uncle’s palatial home in Vienna before 1938.

Adel died in 1925 leaving a will in which she asked her husband to bequeath the paintings to the Austrian gallery.

Until a few years ago, the plaintiff believed that her uncle had carried out Adel’s request.

In 1998 however, an Austrian journalist who had been granted access to the gallery’s archives discovered evidence that the paintings had not been donated to the gallery by their rightful owner but instead had been seized by Nazis during World War II, and thereafter acquired by the gallery.

Plaintiff claims ownership of the paintings pursuant to the terms of a will that her uncle executed after he fled from Austria in 1938.

She filed this action in Federal District Court in California asserting jurisdiction over petitioners, Austria and the gallery, under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act or FSIA.

Enacted in 1976, the FSIA clarified foreign sovereign immunity law replacing the often opaque, inconsistent, and politically charged standards courts had been applying with a comprehensive set of legal rules covering all claims of immunity and civil actions against foreign states or their instrumentalities.

The rule plaintiff invoked known as the expropriation exception precludes foreign states from asserting sovereign immunity in most cases involving property allegedly taken in violation of international law.

Petitioner’s moves to dismiss claiming that when their alleged wrongdoing theft placed, they would have enjoyed absolute immunity from suit in the United States.

Because the FSIA was not enacted until almost 30 years later, they argued that its expropriation exception should not be applied retroactively to deprive them of their preexisting immunity.

The District Court and the Ninth Circuit both rejected this argument as well as certain other defenses raised by the gallery.

We granted certiorari and limited our review to the sovereign immunity issue.

Because the case has not yet been tried, our review of that issue does not determine the final outcome of the case.

We presume that most statutes have only prospective effect but several provisions in the FSIA persuade us that Congress intended it to apply in all civil actions brought against foreign sovereigns even though they arise out of pre-enactment conduct.

The FSIA’s preamble states that the Act will apply “henceforth” to all “claims” of foreign sovereign immunity.

The provisions relating the procedural matters such as venue, removal, execution, and attachment clearly applied a claims based on pre-1976 conduct, and there is no reason to believe that Congress intended an isolated provision like the expropriation exception to have purely prospective application.

Applying the FSIA to all pending cases it is consistent with the Act’s two principal purposes: clarifying the rules judges are to apply in resolving claims of sovereign immunity and eliminating political participation in the resolution of those claims.

Those purposes would be frustrated if in postenactment cases but concerning preenactment conduct.

Courts were to continue to follow the ambiguous non-uniformed and politically charged standards that the FSIA replaced.

Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Breyer has also filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Souter has joined; Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas have joined.