On June 19, 2107 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, holding that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act allows some but not all of the property of a state sponsor of terrorism to be attached to satisfy a judgment arising out of acts of terrorism.
The case arose from 1997 suicide bombings by Hamas in Jerusalem. Plaintiffs who were injured in the attacks, or related to people who were, obtained a default judgment of $71.5 million holding Iran responsible for the bombing. They tried to satisfy the judgment by attaching the “Persepolis Collection” of 30,000 clay tablets and fragments with ancient writing, which is owned by Iran but on loan to the University of Chicago. The Seventh Circuit held that the attachment was barred by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which provides that “the property in the United States of a foreign state shall be immune from attachment arrest and execution.” 28 U.S.C. § 1609.
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed. The Court noted that § 1610 lists certain “circumstances under which property will not be immune” from attachment to enforce terrorism claims against a country that (like Iran) has been designated by the government as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Court held that the exceptions to immunity are limited to those expressly enumerated in the statute, most of which involve property used by a foreign state or its instrumentalities to conduct commercial activity in the United States. The Court rejected the broader view that the holder of a terrorism-related judgment may “attach and execute against any property of the foreign state, regardless of whether the property is deprived of immunity elsewhere in § 1610.”
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Kagan was recused.