WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) 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 necessarily protected from lawsuits in U.S. courts over old claims. But those claims could still face stumbling blocks.
Maria Altmann (search), who fled Austria, had attended the Supreme Court argument. The 88-year-old said the court was one of her last hopes for the return of six Gustav Klimt (search) paintings, including two colorful, impressionistic portraits of her aunt.
Nazis had looted the possessions of Altmann's wealthy Jewish family, including the prized paintings that now hang in the Austrian Gallery (search). She and her husband escaped to America after she had been detained and her husband imprisoned in a labor camp.
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 and will likely be sent back to lower courts in light of Monday's decision.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that the State Department can still ask courts to dismiss such lawsuits.
At issue in the case was a 1976 law that spelled out when other countries can be sued in the United States. The law was based on a 1952 State Department policy. The Supreme Court ruled that the law is retroactive, and can be used to bring old claims.
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."
"The court opens foreign nations worldwide to vast and potential liability for expropriation claims in regards to conduct that occurred generations ago, including claims that have been the subject of international negotiation and agreement," Kennedy wrote.
It was not clear if the court's decision will lead to many successes in old cases.
A Bush administration lawyer had told justices that it would be unprecedented to have U.S. judges resolving lawsuits against foreign countries over expropriated property. The administration argued it would harm America's relations with those countries.
Stevens said the Supreme Court's decision was a narrow one — permitting some lawsuits without deciding the specific merits of the Altmann case.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, said that Americans will still likely have to pursue claims in foreign countries first, and they may face other obstacles in U.S. courts, including statutes of limitations. Breyer is one of two Jewish members on the court.
The case is Austria v. Altmann, 03-13.