Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Keitner on the Forgotten History of Foreign Official Immunity

Chimène I. Keitner, University of California, Hastings College of the Law, has posted The Forgotten History of Foreign Official Immunity, which is forthcoming in New York University Law Review 87 (2012).  Professor Keitner presented the paper at the recent annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History on a panel chaired by David Bederman shortly before his death.  She has dedicated the paper to his memory.  A draft received received Honorable Mention in the 2012 AALS Scholarly Papers Competition.  Here is the abstract:
The immunity of foreign officials from legal proceedings in U.S. courts has drawn significant attention from scholars, advocates, and judges in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Samantar v. Yousuf, 130 S.Ct. 2278 (2010), which held that foreign official immunity is governed by the common law rather than the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The common law of foreign official immunity, which the Samantar Court did not define, operates at the intersection of international law and domestic law, and it implicates the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. Conflicting visions of the substance and process of common law immunity have already emerged in the wake of the Samantar opinion, and will continue to compete until the Supreme Court revisits this issue in a future case. At stake is not only the ability of suits to proceed against foreign officials, but also the relationship between the executive branch and the judiciary in matters affecting foreign affairs.

The original research presented in this Article yields two striking observations. First, a claim that the defendant acted in his official capacity did not operate as an automatic barrier to adjudication on the merits; foreign officials who were neither diplomatic officials nor heads of state were “on the same footing” as any other foreigner with respect to their “suability.” Second, the Executive believed that it did not have constitutional authority to instruct a court to dismiss a private suit on immunity grounds. Although twenty-first century advocates might make policy arguments for blanket immunity or absolute Executive discretion, such choices are not consistent with — let alone compelled by — the eighteenth-century practices and understandings recovered here.