Supreme Court tiptoes into legality of California’s Armenian-genocide law

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 1, 2012 

— The Supreme Court on Monday invited the Obama administration to wade into a potential diplomatic controversy by seeking its views on a controversial California law that helps Armenian victims of mass killings a century ago, and their heirs, seek long-lost life insurance claims.

The invitation doesn’t necessarily mean that the court will take up the state law championed by California’s sizable Armenian-American community, which a federal appeals court subsequently struck down.

Politically, though, it drags administration officials back toward a perennial dispute involving Turkey that pits campaign promises against diplomatic imperatives.

More broadly, the California case could test how much leeway states may have to adopt laws that touch on foreign policy concerns, such as immigration and human rights. Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island already have allied with California in defense of the state’s law. Others probably will jump in if the court decides to hear the case.

“We are pleased the court has asked the solicitor general for the government’s position,” said Washington-based attorney Igor Timofeyev, who’s representing several Armenian-American residents of California in appealing the federal court decision to strike down the law.

The solicitor general is the Justice Department lawyer who represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court

Passed in 2000, the California law in question extended the statute of limitations for filing insurance claims by what state lawmakers termed an “Armenian Genocide victim, or heir or beneficiary of an Armenian Genocide victim.” The insurance policies were issued during the Ottoman Empire starting in 1875.

“The policies were sold to hundreds of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, who were then subject to large-scale forced deportation, murder and expropriation of property by the Ottoman Turkish government between 1915 and 1923,” Los Angeles-based attorney Kathryn Lee Boyd wrote in a legal brief.

According to the brief, insurance companies have “refused to honor their contractual obligations to pay.”

The Turkish government denies that the widespread killings and deportations during the Ottoman Empire’s decline amounted to genocide. President Barack Obama initially said he’d honor the Armenian-genocide phrase; but, like his predecessors, he retreated from the diplomatically loaded wording once in office.

In unanimously striking down the California law last February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals underscored this political sensitivity.

“The passage of nearly a century since the events in question has not extinguished the potential effect of (the California law) on foreign affairs,” Judge Susan Graber wrote for the appellate court. “On the contrary, Turkey expresses great concern over the issue, which continues to be a hotly contested matter of foreign policy around the world.”

The appellate court reasoned that the California law strayed too far from traditional state responsibilities into the federal responsibility for foreign policy. Since then, though, the Supreme Court has offered supporters hope by upholding an Arizona immigration law that also dealt with a traditional federal role.

Acting on the first day of the new term, the Supreme Court simply “invited” the solicitor general to file briefs in several cases “expressing the views of the United States.”

The solicitor general usually responds to such an invitation. The next step will be a written brief explaining why the court either should hear the California case or let stand the lower court decision that struck down the law.

Timofeyev declined to predict the Obama administration’s position. In a legal brief filed on behalf of the insurance companies, Los Angeles-based attorney Neil Soltman stressed that state laws such as California’s “cause great potential for disruption or embarrassment.”Either position could cause the administration grief. Legal and political considerations could lead it to urge the court not to take the case, and thereby uphold the appellate ruling.

Traditionally, the federal government frowns on states wading into foreign policy. Strategically, the Obama administration has tried to avoid antagonizing Turkey.

In Congress, foreign policy concerns continue to bottle up an Armenian-genocide commemorative resolution that currently claims 92 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, far short of what’s needed for passage.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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