FIRST NATIONAL CITY BANK, Petitioner, v. BANCO NACIONAL de CUBA.

406 U.S. 759 (92 S.Ct. 1808, 32 L.Ed.2d 466)

FIRST NATIONAL CITY BANK, Petitioner, v. BANCO NACIONAL de CUBA.

No. 70—295.

Argued: Feb. 22, 1972.

Decided: June 7, 1972.

See 93 S.Ct. 92.

Syllabus

This case involves a claim by respondent for excess collateral it had pledged with petitioner to secure a loan, and a counterclaim by petitioner for that excess as an offset against the value of petitioner's property in Cuba expropriated by Cuba without compensation. The District Court recognized that this Court's decision in Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 84 S.Ct. 923, 11 L.Ed.2d 804, holding that generally the courts of one nation will not sit in judgment on the acts of another nation within the latter's territory (act of state doctrine) would bar assertion of the counterclaim but concluded that post-Sabbatino congressional enactments had in effect overruled that decision. The court issued summary judgment for petitioner on all issues except the amount available for possible setoff. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Sabbatino barred assertion of the counterclaim. Held: The judgment is reversed. Pp. 762—776.

Mr. Justice REHNQUIST, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Mr. Justice WHITE, concluded that since the Executive Branch, which is charged with the primary responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs, has (contrary to the position it took in Sabbatino) expressly represented to the Court that the application of the act of state doctrine in this case would not advance the interests of American foreign policy, the decision in Bernstein v. N.V. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche, etc., 2 Cir., 210 F.2d 375, should be adopted and approved, thus permitting judicial examination of the legal issues raised by the act of a foreign sovereign within its own territory. Pp. 762—770.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS concluded that the central issue in this case is governed by National City Bank v. Republic of China, 348 U.S. 356, 75 S.Ct. 423, 99 L.Ed. 389 (holding that a sovereign's claim may be offset by a counterclaim or setoff), rather than by the Bernstein exception to Sabbatino, and accordingly would allow the setoff up to the amount of respondent's claim. Pp. 770—773.

Mr. Justice POWELL, believing that Sabbatino's broad holding was not compelled by the principles underlying the act of said doctrine, concluded that federal courts have an obligation to hear cases such as this one and to apply applicable international law. Pp. 773—776.

442 F.2d 530, reversed and remanded.

Henry Harfield, New York City, for petitioner.

Victor Rabinowitz, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice REHNQUIST announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Mr. Justice WHITE join.

In July 1958, petitioner loaned the sum of $15 million to a predecessor of respondent. The loan was secured by a pledge of United States Government bonds. The loan was renewed the following year, and in 1960 $5 million was repaid, the $10 million balance was renewed for one year, and collateral equal to the value of the portion repaid was released by petitioner.

Meanwhile, on January 1, 1959, the Castro government came to power in Cuba. On September 16, 1960, the Cuban militia, allegedly pursuant to decrees of the Castro government, seized all of the branches of petitioner located in Cuba. A week later the bank retaliated by selling the collateral securing the loan, and applying the proceeds of the sale to repayment of the principal and unpaid interest. Petitioner concedes than an excess of at least.$1.8 million over and above principal and unpaid interest was realized from the sale of the collateral. Respondent sued petitioner in the Federal District Court to recover this excess, and petitioner, by way of setoff and counterclaim, asserted the right to recover damages as a result of the expropriation of its property in Cuba.

The District Court recognized that our decision in Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 84 S.Ct. 923, 11 L.Ed.2d 804 (1964), holding that generally the courts of one nation will not sit in judgment on the acts of another nation within its own territory would bar the assertion of the counterclaim, but it further held that congressional enactments since the decision in Sabbatino had 'for all practical purposes' overruled that case. Following summary judgment in favor of the petitioner in the District Court on all issues except the amount by which the proceeds of the sale of collateral exceeded the amount that could properly be applied to the loan by petitioner, the parties stipulated that in any event this difference was less than the damages that petitioner could prove in support of its expropriation claim if that claim were allowed. Petitioner then waived any recovery on its counterclaim over and above the amount recoverable by respondent on its complaint, and the District Court then rendered judgment dismissing respondent's complaint on the merits.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the congressional enactments relied upon by the District Court did not govern this case, and that our decision in Sabbatino barred the assertion of petitioner's counterclaim. We granted certiorari and vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals for consideration of the views of the Department of State which had been furnished to us following the filing of the petition for certiorari. 400 U.S. 1019, 19 S.Ct. 581, 27 L.Ed.2d 630 (1971). Upon reconsideration, the Court of Appeals by a divided vote adhered to its earlier decision. We again granted certiorari, First National City Bank v. Banco Nacional de Cuba, 404 U.S. 820, 92 S.Ct. 79, 30 L.Ed.2d 48 (1971).

We must here decide whether, in view of the substantial difference between the position taken in this case by the Executive Branch and that which it took in Sabbatino, the act of state doctrine prevents petitioner from litigating its counterclaim on the merits. We hold that it does not.

The separate lines of cases enunciating both the act of state and sovereign immunity doctrines have a common source in the case of The Schooner Exchange v. M'Faddon, 7 Cranch 116, 146, 3 L.Ed. 287 (1812). There Chief Justice Marshall stated the general principle of sovereign immunity: sovereigns are not presumed without explicit declaration to have opened their tribunals to suits against other sovereigns. Yet the policy considerations at the root of this fundamental principle are in large part also the underpinnings of the act of state doctrine. The Chief Justice observed:

'The arguments in favor of this opinion which have been drawn from the general inability of the judicial power to enforce its decisions in cases of this description, from the consideration, that the sovereign power of the nation is alone competent to avenge wrongs committed by a sovereign, that the questions to which such wrongs give birth are rather questions of policy than of law, that they are for diplomatic, rather than legal discussion, are of great weight, and merit serious attention.' (Emphasis added.)

Thus, both the act of state and sovereign immunity doctrines are judicially created to effectuate general notions of comity among nations and among the respective branches of the Federal Government. The history and the legal basis of the act of state doctrine are treated comprehensively in the Court's opinion in Sabbatino, supra. The Court there cited Chief Justice Fuller's 'classic American statement' of the doctrine, found in Underhill v. Hernandez, 168 U.S. 250, 252, 18 S.Ct. 83, 84, 42 L.Ed. 456 (1897):

'Every sovereign state is bound to respect the independence of every other sovereign state, and the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another done within its own territory. Redress of grievances by reason of such acts must be obtained through the means open to be availed of by sovereign powers as between themselves.'

The act of state doctrine represents an exception to the general rule that a court of the United States, where appropriate jurisdictional standards are met, will decide cases before it by choosing the rules appropriate for decision from among various sources of law including international law. The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 20 S.Ct. 290, 44 L.Ed. 320 (1900). The doctrine precludes any review whatever of the acts of the government of one sovereign State done within its own territory by the courts of another sovereign State. It is clear, however, from both history and the ipinions of this Court that the doctrine is not an inflexible one. Specifically, the Court in Sabbatino described the act of state doctrine as 'a principle of decision binding on federal and state courts alike but compelled by neither international law nor the Constitution,' 376 U.S., at 427, 84 S.Ct., at 940, and then continued:

'(I)ts continuing vitality depends on its capacity to reflect the proper distribution of functions between the judicial and political branches of the Government on matters bearing upon foreign affairs.' Id., at 427—428, 84 S.Ct., at 940.

In Sabbatino, the Executive Branch of this Government, speaking through the Department of State, advised attorneys for amici in a vein which the Court described as being 'intended to reflect no more than the Department's then wish not to make any statement bearing on this litigation.' Id., at 420, 84 S.Ct., at 936. The United States argued before this Court in Sabbatino that the Court should not 'hold, for the first time, that executive silence regarding the act of state doctrine is equivalent to executive approval of judicial inquiry into the foreign act.'

In the case now before us, the Executive Branch has taken a quite different position. The Legal Adviser of the Department of State advised this Court on November 17, 1970, that as a matter of principle where the Executive publicly advises the Court that the act of state doctrine need not be applied, the Court should proceed to examine the legal issues raised by the act of a foreign sovereign within its own territory as it would any other legal question before it. His letter refers to the decision of the court below in Bernstein v. N. V. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche, etc., 210 F.2d 375 (CA2 1954), as representing a judicial recognition of such a principle, and suggests that the applicability of the principle was not limited to the Bernstein case. The Legal Adviser's letter then goes on to state:

'The Department of State believes that the act of state doctrine should not be applied to bar consideration of a defendant's counterclaim or setoff against the Government of Cuba in this or like cases.'

The question that we must now decide is whether the so-called Bernstein exception to the act of state doctrine should be recognized in the context of the facts before the Court. In Sabbatino, the Court said:

'This Court has never had occasion to pass upon the so-called Bernstein exception, nor need it do so now.' 276 U.S., at 420, 84 S.Ct., at 936.

The act of state doctrine, like the doctrine of immunity for foreign sovereigns, has its roots, not in the Constitution, but in the notion of comity between independent sovereigns. Sabbatino, supra, at 438, 84 S.Ct. 923; National City Bank v. Republic of China, 348 U.S. 356, 72 S.Ct. 423, 99 L.Ed. 389 (1955); The Schooner Exchange v. M'Faddon, 7 Cranch 116, 3 L.Ed. 287 (1812).1

It is also buttressed by judicial deference to the exclusive power of the Executive over conduct of relations with other sovereign powers and the power of the Senate to advise and consent on the making of treaties. The issues presented by its invocation are therefore quite dissimilar to those raised in Zschernig v. Miller, 389 U.S. 429, 88 S.Ct. 664, 19 L.Ed.2d 683 (1968), where the Court struck down an Oregon statute that was held to be 'an intrusion by the State into the field of foreign affairs which the Constitution entrusts to the President and the Congress.' Id., at 432, 88 S.Ct., at 666.

The line of cases from this Court establishing the act of state doctrine justifies its existence primarily on the basis that juridical review of acts of state of a foreign power could embarrass the conduct of foreign relations by the political branches of the government. The Court's opinion in Underhill v. Hernandez, 168 U.S. 250, 18 S.Ct. 83, 42 L.Ed. 456 (1897), stressed the fact that the revolutionary government of Venezuela had been recognized by the United States. In Oetjen v. Central Leather Co., 246 U.S. 297, 302, 38 S.Ct. 309, 311, 62 L.Ed. 726 (1918), the Court was explicit:

'The conduct of the foreign relations of our government is committed by the Constitution to the executive and legislative—'the political'—departments of the government, and the propriety of what may be done in the exercise of this political power is not subject to judicial inquiry or decision. . . . It has been specifically decided that: 'Who is the sovereign, de jure or de facto, of a territory is not a judicial, but is a political question, the determination of which by the legislative and executive departments of any government conclusively binds the judges, as well as all other officers, citizens and subjects of that government . . .."

United States v. Belmont, 301 U.S. 324, 57 S.Ct. 758, 81 L.Ed. 1134 (1937), is another case that emphasized the exclusive competence of the Executive Branch in the field of foreign affairs.2 A year earlier, the Court in United States v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., 299 U.S. 304, 319, 57 S.Ct. 216, 220, 81 L.Ed. 255 (1936), had quoted with approval the statement of John Marshall when he was a member of the House of Representatives dealing with this same subject:

"The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations."

The opinion of Scrutton, L.J., in Luther v. James Sagor & Co., (1921) 3 K.B. 532, described in Sabbatino as a 'classic case' articulating the act of state doctrine 'in terms not unlike those of the United States cases,' strongly suggests that under the English doctrine the Executive by representation to the courts may waive the application of the doctrine:

'But it appears a serious breach of international comity, if a state is recognized as a sovereign independent state, to postulate that its legislation is 'contrary to essential principles of justice and morality.' Such an allegation might well with a susceptible foreign government become a casus belli; and should in my view be the action of the Sovereign through his ministers, and not of the judges in reference to a state which their Sovereign has recognized. . . . The responsibility for recognition or non-recognition with the consequences of each rests on the political advisers of the Sovereign and not on the judges.' Id., at 559.

We think that the examination of the foregoing cases indicates that this Court has recognized the primacy of the Executive in the conduct of foreign relations quite as emphatically as it has recognized the act of state doctrine. The Court in Sabbatino throughout its opinion emphasized the lead role of the Executive in foreign policy, particularly in seeking redress for American nationals who had been the victims of foreign expropriation, and concluded that any exception to the act of state doctrine based on a mere silence or neutrality on the part of the Executive might well lead to a conflict between the Executive and Judicial Branches. Here, however, the Executive Branch has expressly stated that an inflexible application of the act of state doctrine by this Court would not serve the interests of American foreign policy.

The act of state doctrine is grounded on judicial concern that application of customary principles of law to judge the acts of a foreign sovereign might frustrate the conduct of foreign relations by the political branches of the government. We conclude that where the Executive Branch, charged as it is with primary responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs, expressly represents to the Court that application of the act of state doctrine would not advance the interests of American foreign policy, that doctrine should not be applied by the courts. In so doing, we of course adopt and approve the so-called Bernstein exception to the act of state doctrine. We believe this to be no more than an application of the classical common-law maxim that '(t)he reason of the law ceasing, the law itself also ceases' (Black's Law Dictionary 288 (4th ed. 1951)).

Our holding is in no sense an abdication of the judicial function to the Executive Branch. The judicial power of the United States extends to this case, and the jurisdictional standards established by Congress for adjudication by the federal courts have been met by the parties. The only reason for not deciding the case by use of otherwise applicable legal principles would be the fear that legal interpretation by the judiciary of the act of a foreign sovereign within its own territory might frustrate the conduct of this country's foreign relations. But the branch of the government responsible for the conduct of those foreign relations has advised us that such a consequence need not be feared in this case. The judiciary is therefore free to decide the case without the limitations that would otherwise be imposed upon it by the judicially created act of state doctrine.

It bears noting that the result we reach is consonant with the principles of equity set forth by the Court in National City Bank v. Republic of China, 348 U.S. 356, 75 S.Ct. 423, 99 L.Ed. 389 (1955). Here respondent, claimed by petitioner to be an instrument of the government of Cuba, has sought to come into our courts and secure an adjudication in its favor, without submitting to decision on the merits of the counterclaim which petitioner asserts against it. Speaking of a closely analogous situation in Republic of China, supra, the Court said:

'We have a foreign government invoking our law but resisting a claim against it which fairly would curtail its recovery. It wants our law, like any other litigant, but it wants our law free from the claims of justice. It becomes vital, therefore, to examine the extent to which the considerations which led this Court to bar a suit against a sovereign in The Schooner Exchange are applicable here to foreclose a court from determining, according to prevailing law, whether the Republic of China's claim against the National City Bank would be unjustly enforced by disregarding legitimate claims against the Republic of China. As expounded in The Schooner Exchange, the doctrine is one of implied consent by the territorial sovereign to exempt the foreign sovereign from its 'exclusive and absolute' jurisdiction, the implication deriving from standards of public morality, fair dealing, reciprocal self-interest, and respect for the 'power and dignity' of the foreign sovereign.' Id., at 361—362, 75 S.Ct., at 427.

The act of state doctrine, as reflected in the cases culminating in Sabbatino, is a judicially accepted limitation on the normal adjudicative processes of the courts, springing from the thoroughly sound principle that on occasion individual litigants may have to forgo decision on the merits of their claims because the involvement of the courts in such a decision might frustrate the conduct of the Nation's foreign policy. It would be wholly illogical to insist that such a rule, fashioned because of fear that adjudication would interfere with the conduct of foreign relations, be applied in the face of an assurance from that branch of the Federal Government that conducts foreign relations that such a result would not obtain. Our holding confines the courts to adjudication of the case before them, and leaves to the Executive Branch the conduct of foreign relations. In so doing, it is both faithful to the principle of separation of powers and consistent with earlier cases applying the act of state doctrine where we lacked the sort of representation from the Executive Branch that we have in this case.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand the case to it for consideration of respondent's alternative bases of attack on the judgment of the District Court.

Reversed and remanded.

TOP


Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring in the result.

Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 84 S.Ct. 923, 11 L.Ed.2d 804, does not control the central issue in the presen2{J8

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