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Opati v. Republic of Sudan

Supreme Court of the United States

February 24, 2020, Argued; May 18, 2020, Decided

No. 17-1268.

Opinion

 [*909]  Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1998, al Qaeda operatives simultaneously detonated truck bombs outside the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Hundreds died, thousands were injured. In time, victims and their family members sued the Republic of Sudan in federal court, alleging that it had assisted al Qaeda in perpetrating the attacks. After more than a decade of motions practice, intervening legislative amendments, and a trial, the plaintiffs proved Sudan’s role in the attacks and established their entitlement to compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, however, Sudan argued, and the court agreed, that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act barred the punitive damages award. It is that decision we now review and, ultimately, vacate.

The starting point for nearly any dispute touching on foreign sovereign immunity lies in Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 7 Cranch 116, 3 L. Ed. 287 (1812). ] There, Chief Justice Marshall explained [**5]  that foreign sovereigns do not enjoy an inherent right to be held immune from suit in American courts: “The jurisdiction of the nation within its own territory is necessarily exclusive and absolute. It is susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself.” Id., at 136, 7 Cranch 116, 3 L. Ed. 287.  Still, Chief Justice Marshall continued, many countries had declined to exercise jurisdiction over foreign sovereigns in cases involving foreign ministers and militaries. Id., at 137-140, 7 Cranch 116, 3 L. Ed. 287. And, accepting a suggestion from the Executive Branch, the Court agreed as a matter of comity to extend that same immunity to a foreign sovereign in the case at hand. Id., at 134, 145-147, 7 Cranch 116, 3 L. Ed. 287.

 For much of our history, claims of foreign sovereign immunity were handled on a piecework basis that roughly paralleled the process in Schooner Exchange. Typically, after a plaintiff sought to sue a foreign sovereign in an American court, the Executive Branch, acting through the State Department, filed a “suggestion of immunity”—case-specific guidance about the foreign sovereign’s entitlement to immunity. See Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U. S. 480, 487, 103 S. Ct. 1962, 76 L. Ed. 2d 81 (1983). Because foreign sovereign immunity is a matter of “grace and comity,” Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U. S. 677, 689, 124 S. Ct. 2240, 159 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2004), and so often implicates judgments the Constitution reserves to the political branches, courts “consistently . . [**6]  . deferred” to these suggestions. Verlinden, 461 U. S., at 486, 103 S. Ct. 1962, 76 L. Ed. 2d 81.

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206 L. Ed. 2d 904 *; 2020 U.S. LEXIS 2844 **; 28 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 229

MONICAH OKOBA OPATI, IN HER OWN RIGHT, AND AS EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CAROLINE SETLA OPATI, DECEASED, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. REPUBLIC OF SUDAN, ET AL.

Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

Prior History:  [**1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Owens v. Republic of Sudan, 864 F.3d 751, 431 U.S. App. D.C. 163, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13695 (July 28, 2017)

Disposition: Vacated and remanded.

CORE TERMS

punitive damages, terrorism, cause of action, damages, retroactive, foreign sovereign immunities, new federal, authorize, immunity, new cause of action, foreign sovereign, family member, past conduct, courts, attacks, federal cause of action, court of appeals, district court, state law, state-sponsored

International Law, Foreign & International Immunity, Sovereign Immunity, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Exceptions, Terrorism, Governments, Legislation, Effect & Operation, Prospective Operation, Retrospective Operation, Interpretation, Civil Procedure, Remedies, Damages, Punitive Damages