Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism on Monday over whether ancient Persian artifacts held in a Chicago museum can be seized to pay for a $71 million court judgment against Iran over its alleged role in a 1997 bombing attack in Jerusalem.
The court heard oral arguments in an appeal by several U.S. citizens injured in the attack of a 2016 ruling by a federal appeals court siding with Iran. The justices will determine when a foreign state’s assets may be seized under federal law to pay for damages awarded by U.S. courts to victims of militant attacks.
Iran is one of several countries and organizations ordered by U.S. courts to pay damages in similar cases, though such orders have been difficult to enforce.
The dispute concerns the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law that largely shields foreign governments from liability, and their assets from seizure, in American courts, except for countries designated by the U.S. government as state sponsors of terrorism, a list that includes Iran.
The plaintiffs targeted ancient Persian artifacts held at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute on loan from Iran since 1937 including about 30,000 clay tablets and fragments boasting some of the oldest writing in the world.
The law exempts from immunity certain foreign-owned property used for commercial purposes in the United States. The lower court ruled that the exemptions cover only property used by the foreign state and not by a third party like the university.
Some of the justices questioned whether non-commercial property like the artifacts may be seized. Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the plaintiff’s lawyer, Asher Perlin, that it seemed like an issue the U.S. Congress should address.
“I don’t think there will be a mad rush to grab antiquities,” Perlin replied.
When Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that Perlin’s clients were doing just that, Perlin suggested they have no choice because Iran does not pay judgments.
“It’s not Argentina, where they can’t afford to pay the judgment,” Perlin said, adding that the Iranians “don’t care what the American courts say.”
The long-running Chicago lawsuit arose from a 1997 attack in which three members of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas blew themselves up at a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing five people. Eight injured U.S. citizens, including lead plaintiff Jenny Rubin, and their relatives sued Iran in a U.S. court alleging it had provided support for the group. The court agreed, awarding them $71.5 million, which they then sought to collect.
President Donald Trump’s administration sided with Iran and the university, warning that litigation against foreign states in the United States can affect the reciprocal treatment of the United States in foreign courts.
On Monday, Justice Department Zachary Tripp told the justices that if the U.S. Congress wanted to allow property of “cultural and historic significance to another country and its people” to be seized, it would have explicitly said so in the law, but did not.
Eight of the nine justices took part in the argument, with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself. A decision in the case is due by the end of June.