- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003


The Supreme Court said yesterday it would use a case about Nazi-era stolen art to clarify when foreign governments may be sued in U.S. courts.

Immediately at stake in the case is $150 million in paintings that an elderly California woman wants returned. They were stolen from her family 65 years ago in Austria and ended up in the government’s hands.

More broadly, her lawsuit against the Austrian Gallery and the Austrian state over the six Gustav Klimt paintings gives the court an opportunity to clarify when countries are immune from lawsuits involving disputes that predate a 1952 shield from lawsuits.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if the charges in Maria V. Altmann’s case are proven, the paintings were taken in violation of international law and she can sue in the United States.

Austria’s attorneys have maintained that the dispute belongs in Austrian courts.

Mrs. Altmann’s aunt, who died in 1925, had asked that the art be donated to the state gallery, but her uncle who died in exile in Switzerland in 1945 specified that his possessions should go to Mrs. Altmann and two other family members.

Mrs. Altmann, now 87, escaped Nazi persecution and fled with her husband to Los Angeles. She is the only one of the three heirs still living.

Also yesterday, the court said that it would clarify when the federal government can prosecute crimes on Indian reservations. The justices will review a case from North Dakota, in which an Indian is accused of punching a law officer while visiting the reservation of another tribe.

Billy Jo Lara pleaded guilty to three charges in a tribal court, admitting that he was drunk, hit a police officer and resisted arrest. He received a 155-day sentence for the 2001 altercation.

Federal prosecutors then sought to convict him of assault on a federal officer, but Mr. Lara argued that would be double jeopardy in violation of the Constitution.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson said that Mr. Lara’s prosecution in Spirit Lake Nation Reservation tribal court does not prevent the federal government from also pursuing charges. He noted that Mr. Lara, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, could face a longer sentence, up to 20 years in prison for assaulting a federal officer and causing an injury.

The court also decided it will use the case of a man who murdered 13 persons in a 1982 shooting rampage in Pennsylvania to determine whether dozens of old death sentences, or more, should be thrown out.

An appeals court has already held that George Banks received an unfair sentencing hearing because of a poorly written set of jury instructions. The justices will review that decision sometime next year.

The Supreme Court set new standards for jury instructions in 1988 and clarified them in a follow-up case in 1990. At issue now is whether the standards can be applied retroactively. Pennsylvania lawyers said that the outcome would affect about 30 death-row cases in Pennsylvania. It was unknown what the effect nationwide would be.

Banks was sentenced to death for killing his five children, ages 1 to 6, and eight other persons in a shooting rampage in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Four of the victims were the mothers of his children. Banks, who is biracial, claimed he wanted to save them from a racist society. His lawyers have argued that he had a long history of psychological problems.

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