The New Tate Letter: Foreign Official Immunity and the Case for a Statutory Fix
By Luke Ryan
Plaintiffs sometimes bring civil lawsuits in U.S. federal courts against officials or ex-officials of foreign governments accused of committing atrocities abroad. In these types of cases, the foreign individuals will almost certainly invoke the affirmative defense of foreign official immunity. In the 2010 decision, Samantar v. Yousuf, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA)—a 1976 statute governing the immunity of foreign states—did not control judicial determination of a foreign individual’s request for immunity. Instead, the Court said that foreign officials may be entitled to immunity as a matter of federal common law. Because of the sensitive foreign policy implications of these types of cases, the executive branch—specifically the State Department—has aggressively asserted control over all foreign official immunity requests. In 2012, in the so-called “Rosenberg Statement” and “Koh Letter,” the Justice Department and Legal Adviser to the State Department, Harold Hongju Koh, declared that (1) federal courts must refrain from deciding any foreign official immunity request that was not first presented to the State Department and (2) it was for the Executive, not the courts, to evaluate whether a foreign individual acted in an official capacity.
While the Executive is certainly the branch of government with principal responsibility for foreign affairs, the Koh Letter and Rosenberg Statement represent executive branch overreach into judicial supervision of a federal lawsuit. Judicial deference to the Executive on foreign official immunity calls may be proper; blind obedience is not. In fact, such unilateral control ultimately hurts the State Department itself, which must balance complex and countervailing foreign policy interests. So how should the Executive’s power play be answered? Despite the Supreme Court’s reference to judge made federal common law in Samantar, this Note argues that the tug-of-war between the executive and judicial branches requires congressional action because the courts are in disarray, with some already having acquiesced to executive control. The current disorder is a striking replay of what happened in the doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity in the late 1950s and 1960s in the aftermath of the 1952 Tate Letter—an earlier dispatch from a different State Department Legal Advisor that sparked such confusion in the federal common law of foreign sovereign immunity that Congress was compelled to intervene with the FSIA. This Note concludes with a model statute that Congress should consider enacting.