Samantar Insta-Symposium: What Samantar Doesn’t Decide

Samantar Insta-Symposium: What Samantar Doesn’t Decide

[We are grateful to continue our discussion on Samantar with a comment from Prof. William Dodge of the UC Hastings College of Law. Please keep following us for more thoughts in future posts and click “Related Posts” to see earlier contributions on this question.]


Like my colleague Chimene Keitner, I wrote an amicus brief supporting respondents (co-authored with Mike Ramsey), and I too am happy with the result in Samantar.


Although Curt Bradley’s post magnanimously notes that his position lost 9-0 in Samantar, it would be wrong to see the decision as a defeat for Curt and his co-author Jack Goldsmith. What they have succeeded in doing, despite the loss in Samantar, is to raise the issue of official immunity, which it is safe to predict will now be pleaded as a defense to many ATS and TVPA claims.


After Samantar, we know that the immunities of foreign officials (at least those not covered by treaties) are “properly governed by the common law.” I find it interesting that the Court never says “federal common law,” though I doubt anyone thinks the Court meant for the district court to apply the common law of Virginia on remand. Cf. Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 421-27 (1964) (holding that the closely analogous act of state doctrine must be applied as a matter of federal common law).


One critical issue the district court will have to address is the relationship between the (federal) common law of immunity and customary international law. Curt’s post finds it remarkable, that the Court didn’t say more about international law, but as footnote 14 of the opinion points out, the Court didn’t have to say anything in order to decide this case. In fact, sovereign immunity has long been treated as a question of comity in the United States rather than as a question of customary international law. The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 136-37, 146 (1812), says that immunity is based on consent and may be withdrawn. (The analysis of Schooner Exchange gets somewhat complicated because international law at the time recognized that some rules of the law of nations were optional, a topic Curt has also written about recently.) The Santissima Trinidad, 20 U.S. 283, 353 (1822), expressly states that sovereign immunity is a matter of “public comity and convenience” and modern decisions like Verlinden are to the same effect. Thus, even if the House of Lords decision in Jones were a relevant statement of customary international law (and Chimene’s brief does an able job of explaining why it is not), it would not necessarily be applied directly as common law.


Another critical issue is the role of the executive. The Court’s brief history of foreign sovereign immunity skips from 1812 to 1938, omitting a period during which the executive’s determinations of immunity were not treated as conclusive. See, e.g., Berizzi Bros. Co. v. The Pesaro, 271 U.S. 562 (1926). Most (perhaps all) of the modern cases deferring to the executive’s determinations of official immunity have involved diplomatic or head of state immunity. It is one thing for the President to determine under his power to send and receive ambassadors who is a diplomat or under his recognition power who is a head of state, but perhaps quite another to determine whether torture is an “official act” for which a defendant is entitled to immunity. The Solicitor General’s brief took the position that the immunity of foreign officials is governed by “principles adopted by the executive branch,” but it is not immediately obvious where the President gets this law-making power from.


In any event, Samantar should provide lots of grist for the law review mill.

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