High Court Allows Holocaust-Era Lawsuits

Folks, let’s face it. It’s legitmate, and righteous, that Holocaust survivors get back what was stolen from them.

WASHINGTON (AP) – A California woman can sue to retrieve $150 million worth of family paintings stolen by the Nazis, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in opening American courts to World War II-era disputes the Bush administration had wanted settled diplomatically.

The ruling was celebrated by Jewish leaders, who hope for jury verdicts while some Holocaust survivors still are alive.

The court ruled 6-3 vote that 88-year-old Maria Altmann could pursue a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles that seeks to force Austria to turn over six Gustav Klimt paintings that include portraits of her aunt. The paintings are among an estimated 600,000 art works the Nazis stole during Adolf Hitler’s rule in Germany.

“The court has taken a major step forward to make possible finally, 60 years after the war ended, some measure of redress for victims of the Holocaust whose property was stolen and never returned,” said Charles Moerdler, an attorney for The Austrian Jewish Community. “It is both symbolic and practical. It is literally a godsend.”

The decision, over the strong objections of three court conservatives, will encourage victims of wartime atrocities to pursue lawsuits in America. They may have a hard time collecting money.

Cases already are pending that involve women who claim they were used by the Japanese during World War II as sex slaves; and Holocaust survivors and heirs who have sued the French national railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps.

In addition, Austria faces a separate class-action art lawsuit in federal court in New York, and Poland is accused in a lawsuit of taking Jewish families’ land.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said courts have jurisdiction of old property cases under a 1976 federal law that spelled out when other countries can be sued in the United States.

In a dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the decision was a broad one that “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 was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas.

The ruling was a defeat for the Bush administration, which argued America’s relationships with other countries were on the line in the case. Old claims should be resolved diplomatically or politically, not in court fights, the administration maintained.

Stevens said the government still can seek to head off individual lawsuits by making formal requests that they be dismissed on diplomatic grounds.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, said that it will not necessarily be easy to win such cases. Americans probably still will have to pursue claims in foreign countries first and may face other obstacles in U.S. courts, including statutes of limitations, said Breyer, one of two Jewish members on the court.

Austrian government spokesman Gottfried Toman said he was disappointed with the ruling. He said, however, “If we have to conduct the trial in the United States, so be it. We will be successful there.”

The Nazis seized the possessions of Altmann’s wealthy Jewish family, including the prized paintings that now hang in the Austrian Gallery, soon after they came to power in Austria in 1938. She and her husband escaped to America after she had been detained and her husband imprisoned in a labor camp.

Austria contends rightful ownership of the paintings, because Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, asked that the art be donated to the government gallery before her death in 1925.

Klimt, an Austrian impressionist who died in 1918, founded the Vienna Secession art movement. Last November, his “The Villa at Attersee,” a lush 1917 landscape, sold at auction in New York for $29.1 million.

Altmann’s lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, said he will ask for a quick trial because of her age.

Altmann said she doubts it will come to that. The case could instead by settled in arbitration, she said.

“The trial would bring out the real facts, which are pretty bad for the Austrians. I think they will want to avoid it,” she said in a telephone interview.

Her uncle died in exile in Switzerland at the end of World War II and left his possessions to Altmann and two of her siblings. Only Altmann is alive.

The case is Austria v. Altmann, 03-13.


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