The Supreme Court today opened the federal courts to some lawsuits seeking to right the wrongs committed by foreign governments during the World War II era.
The court, in a 6-3 decision involving priceless Gustav Klimt paintings seized from a Jewish family by the Nazis, rejected Austria's argument that the 1976 law permitting such suits cannot be applied retroactively, that is, to events before 1976.
The decision does not mean that Maria Altmann, now 88, can recover the paintings that once belonged to her family. It does allow her, and others like her, to pursue her claim in the federal courts and try to recover the works of art, estimated to be worth more than $150 million.
Among the paintings is one of Klimt's most famous works, a "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," Altmann's aunt.
The ruling could conceivably provide some assistance to other World War II era claims, such as those brought by women who say they were used a sex slaves by Japan during World War II and by Holocaust survivors who have sued the French national railroad for transporting thousands of Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
But Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote for the court, noted that the holding was narrow in its application.
The paintings at issue in the case had hung in the Vienna home of Maria Altmann's uncle and aunt, Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. Bloch-Bauer's will asked that after her death, her husband donate the paintings to the Austrian national gallery. She died in 1925.
But Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer left Vienna after the Nazis took over Austria in 1938 and rewrote his will to leave his property to relatives, including Altmann, who also had taken refuge in the United States.
Meanwhile, Nazi lawyers seized the paintings and put them in the gallery, where Austria wants them to remain as national treasures.
Altmann suedAustria under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which permits limited types of suits against foreign governments.
The government of Austria, supported by the Justice Department, argued that the law did not apply to events before the law's enactment -- especially to events that occurred 30 or 40 years before -- and that the federal courts had no authority to hear Altmann's suit.
Stevens, joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, said that Congress was "unambiguous" in wanting the federal courts to adjudicate such suits, regardless of the passage of time.
Altmann's lawyer and family friend, E. Randol Schoenberg, described her as "ecstatic" today. Because of her age, he said, "I hope we can get the case heard before the end of the year."
But, he noted, Austria could "still raise more issues. Their position is that the will is clear: It gives the paintings to Austria."
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dissented, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.
The decision, said the dissenters, will "weaken the reasoning and diminish the force of the rule against retroactivity" of laws. In the context of numerous treaties and agreements with foreign governments, the ruling is especially troubling, Kennedy wrote.
The case is Republic of Austria et al v. Maria V. Altmann.