Transnational Enforcement Discovery

May 1, 2015

Joseph Stiglitz described the current Argentine sovereign debt crisis as “America throwing a bomb into the global economic system.” And yet, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to tackle only one head of this massive hydra. Presented with numerous issues arising from the controversy, the Court granted certiorari only on the issue of whether the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) blocked Argentina’s creditors from obtaining discovery of Argentina’s worldwide financial transactions. Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, concluded that because the FSIA says nothing on its face about discovery—it says nothing about discovery.

But the majority did not grapple with the worldwide nature of the discovery granted. It assumed, without deciding, that worldwide discovery in aid of enforcement of a judgment is usually appropriate. This prompted Justice Ginsburg to dissent. Justice Ginsburg wrote that U.S. courts should not assume that the “sky may be the limit” for post-judgment discovery, especially given that other countries typically have far more limited document production. For Justice Ginsburg, discovery in aid of enforcement of a judgment is presumptively about U.S. courts looking to U.S. law about assets in the United States.

The split in the Court reflects deep confusion and disagreement among U.S. courts on the role of discovery in an era of worldwide hunts for assets to satisfy unpaid judgments and arbitral awards. Courts have struggled to define the limits of worldwide enforcement discovery for one overriding reason: U.S. courts—following the Supreme Court’s lead—have applied tests and concepts developed for pretrial discovery to the very different world of post-judgment enforcement discovery. Post-judgment enforcement discovery differs in its purposes, its presumptions, and its problems. This Article grapples with each and proposes new approaches to tackling two obstacles to enforcement discovery—restrictions on discovery and on execution.

May 2015

No. 6