The Supreme Court Will Decide Whether US Terror Victims Have a Claim to Iranian Artifacts

Case could have serious implications for foreign assets in the US.

The Field Museum in Chicago. Courtesy the Field Museum.

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear an unusual case in which American victims of a 1997 terror attack in Israel are seeking seizure of Iranian artifacts currently housed in Chicago’s Field Museum to satisfy a $71.5 million civil judgment awarded in 2003.

The attack occurred nearly 20 years ago, on September 4, 1997, when three suicide bombers from the Palestinian fundamentalist organization Hamas blew themselves up at the Ben Yeduda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem. Led by plaintiff Jenny Rubin, eight US citizens and their families sued Iran—the alleged sponsor of the attack—in federal court in Washington, DC. The claim applies the terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a law that establishes the limitations as to whether a foreign sovereignty can be sued in US courts.

Though the victims won a $71.5 million default judgment, Iran did not pay and the plaintiffs subsequently registered the judgment in Chicago federal court. Those proceedings targeted four collections of Iranian artifacts held by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Field Museum.

A federal judge found that Iran had not used the artifacts for commercial activity, a requirement of the terrorism exception to the FSIA, known as 1610. The victims appealed this judgment, arguing that a third party’s (i.e. the museums’) study of parts of the collection essentially triggered the exception.

But the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sided with the lower court’s ruling last year, agreeing that the foreign state itself must use its property for a commercial activity to qualify under section 1610.

After further legal disputes, the victims filed a writ of certiorari (a request for judicial review) with the Supreme Court this past October, citing the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Bennett v. Islamic Republic of Iran, “which held that ‘creative arguments’ by Iran’s central bank cannot save it from paying nearly $17.6 million to the victims of terrorist attacks in Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere,” according to reports in Courthouse News.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to decide whether the terrorism exception of the FSIA “provides a freestanding attachment immunity exception that allows terror victim judgment creditors to attach and execute upon assets of foreign state sponsors of terrorism regardless of whether the assets are otherwise subject to execution.” In other words, should victims of state-sponsored terrorism be allowed to seize foreign assets that are typically protected under the FSIA? The Supreme Court will attempt to resolve this question including the judicial split between the Seventh and Ninth Circuits.

“The Seventh Circuit ruled as a threshold matter that the Field Museum’s Herzfeld Collection is not Iranian property at all—a ruling that is outside the scope of the question on which the Supreme Court has now granted cert,” William P. Ferranti, an attorney for the Field Museum, told artnet News via email. “We so advised the Court, and Petitioners agreed in their reply that any review should be limited to the Persepolis Collection.”

The items in the Persepolis Collection include roughly 30,000 clay tablets of some of the oldest writings in the world, which Iran loaned to the Institute in 1937.

After years of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court’s pending decision could have serious implications for how foreign assets are viewed and are potentially subject to seizure in the US.

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