Samantar Insta-Symposium: The View From the Counsel’s Table

Samantar Insta-Symposium: The View From the Counsel’s Table

[Prof. Beth Stephens of Rutgers Law School at Camden has litigated and written widely on related issues. Additionally, she served a counsel for one of the (victorious) respondents in the Samantar case.  We are of course honored that she is able to share her views with us. Again, a reminder that “Related Posts” will send you to a collection of all of the posts on this topic.] 

The Supreme Court decision in Samantar v. Yousuf put to rest to a line of Circuit court decisions that has baffled me for twenty years. Immunity for some foreign government officials for some official acts may or may not be good policy, but I’ve never understood the argument that such immunity could be found within the text of the FSIA. Moreover, the executive branch under multiple administrations, shared my reading of the statute – a level of support that has been rare in my professional career. 


The executive branch has also argued consistently over many years that common law immunity for foreign government officials survived passage of the FSIA. The Supreme Court in Samantar seemed to agree, but took pains to say very little about the scope of any such immunity. The Court acknowledged the existence of “specialized” or “position-based” immunities for diplomats, consuls and heads-of-state, and stated that “we do not doubt that in some circumstances the immunity of the foreign state extends to an individual for acts taken in his official capacity.” The decision remanded the case to the District Court to consider any non-FSIA defenses, including whether Samantar “is entitled to immunity under the common law.”


Putting aside the issues likely to arise on remand in Samantar, a case on which I served as one of the counsel for the Respondents, a few points on where other cases may go from here:


Prior to Samantar, even in Circuits that followed Chuidian, the FSIA had not posed a significant hurdle to human rights cases because most cases followed the pattern of the lawsuit against Ferdinand Marcos, in which the Ninth Circuit applied Chuidian but found that Marcos’ acts of torture, execution, and disappearance “were clearly acts outside of his authority as President,” “were not taken within any official mandate,” and, as a result, were not protected by the FSIA.


A key issue for future cases will be to determine what law will govern the circumstances in which a suit will be deemed an “official capacity” suit for immunity purposes. Looking purely to the law of the foreign state, as interpreted by the government of that state, would pose a difficult conflict. I do not think, for example, that our courts will conclude that a foreign official accused of genocide can claim sovereign immunity based upon an assertion that, in committing the genocide, he or she was acting within the official policy of a foreign government. If the reach of official authority that will entitle an individual to assert immunity is governed at least in part by international law, government officials who have committed violations of widely accepted international human rights norms will not be protected by immunity. The Torture Victim Protection Act provides a model: The TVPA states clearly that some acts are tortious and subject to suit in U.S. courts when committed under color of foreign law.


Finally, the common law of immunity today is not necessarily identical to the common law of 1976. Since that time, relevant doctrines of U.S. law, domestic law in other countries, and international law have all evolved. Human rights norms have expanded greatly, along with international and domestic approaches to accountability. For example, statutory changes in the United States such as the TVPA would override pre-existing common law. Similarly, treaties and customary international law may impose obligations to hold accountable those who violate human rights that did not exist when the executive branch and the courts last addressed the immunity of foreign government officials.

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Yes, by analogy, it should not matter whether Hitler and his highest level cohorts were following domestic law.  Their conduct was ultra vires under and because of international law, as noted by the IMT at Nuremberg.  Readers should note that there are several U.S. cases following an ultra vires – type approach and recognizing that acts in violation of international law cannot be lawful “official” or “public” acts.  See, e.g., materials cited in 25 Mich. J. Int’l L. 229, 235-37 (2004), available at ; 42 Case W. Res. J. Int’l L. 359, 371-74 (2009), available at