South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Federal Courts Have No Jurisdiction over Foreign Heads of State
Description Former and current citizens of China may not sue the head of the government of China in U.S. court for alleged human rights abuses. Foreign Heads of State are immune from court jurisdiction unless the political branches of government hold otherwise.
Topic International Law
Key Words Alien Tort Claims Act; Jurisdiction; Head-of-State Immunity
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts Plaintiffs are practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement from China. They are current residents of China or past residents who now live in the U.S. They contend that they suffered torture and other human rights abuses by the Falun Gong Control Office of the government of China. They sued that office and the former president of China, Jiang Zemin, for violation of the Alien Tort Claims Act. The Act grants jurisdiction to federal courts over "any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." Defendants failed to respond to the suit so plaintiffs moved for a default judgment.

Suit dismissed. The president of China has head-of-state immunity. "Under traditional common law, a foreign head of state was absolutely immune from suit in United States courts. The Supreme Court articulated this principle of customary international law in 1812." The head of state is deemed to be the personification of the sovereign state. This principle evolved into the general doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity. The courts defer to the decisions of the political branches, especially the Executive Branch, as to whether to take jurisdiction over actions against foreign sovereigns. The suit against the Falun Gong Control Office is dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction. The Office had no presence in the United States, so there were not sufficient minimum contacts for a federal court to have personal jurisdiction.

Citation Plaintiffs A, B, C v. Zemin, --- F.Supp.2d --- (2003 WL 22118924, N.D., Ill., 2003)

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