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Republic of Austria v. Altmann

June 07, 2004

REPUBLIC OF AUSTRIA ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
MARIA V. ALTMANN



On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit Court Below: 327 F. 3d 1246

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2003

Argued February 25, 2004

Upon evidence that certain of her uncle's valuable art works had either been seized by the Nazis or expropriated by Austria after World War II, respondent filed this action in Federal District Court to recover six of the paintings from petitioners, Austria and its instrumentality, the Austrian Gallery. She asserts jurisdiction under §2 of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA or Act), 28 U. S. C. §1330(a), which authorizes federal civil suits against foreign states "as to any claim for relief in personam with respect to which the foreign state is not entitled to immunity" under another section of the FSIA or under "any applicable international agreement." She further asserts that petitioners are not entitled to immunity under the FSIA's "expropriation exception," §1605(a)(3), which expressly exempts from immunity certain cases involving "rights in property taken in violation of international law." Petitioners moved to dismiss based on, inter alia, the two-part claim that (1) as of 1948, when much of their alleged wrongdoing took place, they would have enjoyed absolute sovereign immunity from suit in United States courts, and that (2) nothing in the FSIA retroactively divests them of that immunity. Rejecting this argument, the District Court concluded, among other things, that the FSIA applies retroactively to pre-1976 actions. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The FSIA applies to conduct, like petitioners' alleged wrongdoing, that occurred prior to the Act's 1976 enactment and even prior to the United States' 1952 adoption of the so-called "restrictive theory" of sovereign immunity. Pp. 9-24.

(a) This Court has long deferred to Executive Branch sovereign immunity decisions. Until 1952, Executive policy was to request immunity in all actions against friendly sovereigns. In that year, the State Department began to apply the "restrictive theory," whereby immunity is recognized with regard to a foreign state's sovereign or public acts, but not its private acts. Although this change had little impact on federal courts, which continued to abide by the Department's immunity suggestions, Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U. S. 480, 487, the change threw immunity decisions into some disarray: Foreign nations' diplomatic pressure sometimes prompted the Department to file suggestions of immunity in cases in which immunity would not have been available under the restrictive theory; and when foreign nations failed to ask the Department for immunity, the courts had to determine whether immunity existed, so responsibility for such determinations lay with two different branches, ibid. To remedy these problems, the FSIA codified the restrictive principle and transferred primary responsibility for immunity determinations to the Judicial Branch. The Act grants federal courts jurisdiction over civil actions against foreign states and carves out the expropriation and other exceptions to its general grant of immunity. In any such action, the district court's subject-matter jurisdiction depends on the applicability of one of those exceptions. Id., at 493-494. Pp. 9-13.

(b) This case is not controlled by Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U. S. 244. In describing the general presumption against retroactive application of a statute, the Court there declared, inter alia, that, if a federal law enacted after the events in suit does not expressly prescribe its own proper reach but does operate retroactively -- i.e., would impair rights a party possessed when he acted, increase his liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed -- it does not govern absent clear congressional intent favoring that result. Id., at 280. Though seemingly comprehensive, this inquiry does not provide a clear answer here. None of the three examples of retroactivity mentioned above fits the FSIA's clarification of sovereign immunity law. However, the preliminary conclusion that the FSIA does not appear to "operate retroactively" within the meaning of Landgraf''s default rule creates some tension with the Court's observation in Verlinden that the FSIA is not simply a jurisdictional statute, but a codification of "the standards governing foreign sovereign immunity as an aspect of substantive federal law." 461 U. S., at 496-497 (emphasis added). And while the FSIA's preamble suggests that it applies to preenactment conduct, that statement by itself falls short of the requisite express prescription. Thus Landgraf's default rule does not definitively resolve this case. While Landgraf's antiretroactivity presumption aims to avoid unnecessary post hoc changes to legal rules on which private parties relied in shaping their primary conduct, however, foreign sovereign immunity's principal purpose is to give foreign states and their instrumentalities some present protection from the inconvenience of suit, Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U. S. 468, 479. In this sui generis context, it is more appropriate, absent contraindications, to defer to the most recent decision of the political branches on whether to take jurisdiction, the FSIA, than to presume that decision inapplicable merely because it postdates the conduct in question. Pp. 13-18.

(c) Nothing in the FSIA or the circumstances surrounding its enactment suggests that it should not be applied to petitioners' 1948 actions. Indeed, clear evidence that Congress intended it to apply to preenactment conduct lies in its preamble's statement that foreign states' immunity "[c]laims ... should henceforth be decided by [American] courts ... in conformity with the principles set forth in this chapter," §1602 (emphasis added). Though perhaps not sufficient to satisfy Landgraf''s "express command" requirement, 511 U. S., at 280, this language is unambiguous: Immunity "claims" -- not actions protected by immunity, but assertions of immunity to suits arising from those actions -- are the relevant conduct regulated by the Act and are "henceforth" to be decided by the courts. Thus, Congress intended courts to resolve all such claims "in conformity with [FSIA] principles" regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred. The FSIA's overall structure strongly supports this conclusion: Many of its provisions unquestionably apply to cases arising out of conduct that occurred before 1976, see, e.g., Dole Food Co., supra, and its procedural provisions undoubtedly apply to all pending cases. In this context, it would be anomalous to presume that an isolated provision (such as the expropriation exception on which respondent relies) is of purely prospective application absent any statutory language to that effect. Finally, applying the FSIA to all pending cases regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred is most consistent with two of the Act's principal purposes: clarifying the rules judges should apply in resolving sovereign immunity claims and eliminating political participation in the resolution of such claims. Pp. 18-22.

(d) This holding is extremely narrow. The Court does not review the lower courts' determination that §1605(a)(3) applies here, comment on the application of the so-called "act of state" doctrine to petitioners' alleged wrongdoing, prevent the State Department from filing statements of interest suggesting that courts decline to exercise jurisdiction in particular cases implicating foreign sovereign immunity, or express an opinion on whether deference should be granted such filings in cases covered by the FSIA. The issue here concerns only the interpretation of the FSIA's reach -- a "pure question of statutory construction ... well within the province of the Judiciary." INS v. Cardoza&nbhyph;Fonseca, 480 U. S. 421, 446, 448. Pp. 22-24.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Stevens

541 U. S. ____ (2004)

In 1998 an Austrian journalist, granted access to the Austrian Gallery's archives, discovered evidence that certain valuable works in the Gallery's collection had not been donated by their rightful owners but had been seized by the Nazis or expropriated by the Austrian Republic after World War II. The journalist provided some of that evidence to respondent, who in turn filed this action to recover possession of six Gustav Klimt paintings. Prior to the Nazi invasion of Austria, the paintings had hung in the palatial Vienna home of respondent's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Czechoslovakian Jew and patron of the arts. Respondent claims ownership of the paintings under a will executed by her uncle after he fled Austria in 1938. She alleges that the Gallery obtained possession of the paintings through wrongful conduct in the years during and after World War II.

The defendants (petitioners here) -- the Republic of Austria and the Austrian Gallery (Gallery), an instrumentality of the Republic -- filed a motion to dismiss the complaint asserting, among other defenses, a claim of sovereign immunity. The District Court denied the motion, 142 F. Supp. 2d 1187 (CD Cal. 2001), and the Court of Appeals affirmed, 317 F. 3d 954 (CA9 2002), as amended, 327 F. 3d 1246 (2003). We granted certiorari limited to the question whether the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA or Act), 28 U. S. C. §1602 et seq., which grants foreign states immunity from the jurisdiction of federal and state courts but expressly exempts certain cases, including "cases ... in which rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue," §1605(a)(3), applies to claims that, like respondent's, are based on conduct that occurred before the Act's enactment, and even before the United States adopted the so-called "restrictive theory" of sovereign immunity in 1952. 539 U. S. 987 (2003).

I.

Because this case comes to us from the denial of a motion to dismiss on the pleadings, we assume the truth of the following facts alleged in respondent's complaint.

Born in Austria in 1916, respondent Maria V. Altmann escaped the country after it was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938. She settled in California in 1942 and became an American citizen in 1945. She is a niece, and the sole surviving named heir, of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who died in Zurich, Switzerland, on November 13, 1945.

Prior to 1938 Ferdinand, then a wealthy sugar magnate, maintained his principal residence in Vienna, Austria, where the six Klimt paintings and other valuable works of art were housed. His wife, Adele, was the subject of two of the paintings. She died in 1925, leaving a will in which she "ask[ed]" her husband "after his death" to bequeath the paintings to the Gallery.*fn1 App. 187a, ¶ ;81. The attorney for her estate advised the Gallery that Ferdinand intended to comply with his wife's request, but that he was not legally obligated to do so because he, not Adele, owned the paintings. Ferdinand never executed any document transferring ownership of any of the paintings at issue to the Gallery. He remained their sole legitimate owner until his death. His will bequeathed his entire estate to respondent, another niece, and a nephew.

On March 12, 1938, in what became known as the "Anschluss," the Nazis invaded and claimed to annex Austria. Ferdinand, who was Jewish and had supported efforts to resist annexation, fled the country ahead of the Nazis, ultimately settling in Zurich. In his absence, according to the complaint, the Nazis "Aryanized" the sugar company he had directed, took over his Vienna home, and divided up his artworks, which included the Klimts at issue here, many other valuable paintings, and a 400-piece porcelain collection. A Nazi lawyer, Dr. Erich Fü ;hrer, took possession of the six Klimts. He sold two to the Gallery in 1941*fn2 and a third in 1943, kept one for himself, and sold another to the Museum of the City of Vienna. The immediate fate of the sixth is not known. 142 F. Supp. 2d, at 1193.

In 1946 Austria enacted a law declaring all transactions motivated by Nazi ideology null and void. This did not result in the immediate return of looted artwork to exiled Austrians, however, because a different provision of Austrian law proscribed export of "artworks ... deemed to be important to [the country's] cultural heritage" and required anyone wishing to export art to obtain the permission of the Austrian Federal Monument Agency. App. 168a, ¶ ;32. Seeking to profit from this requirement, the Gallery and the Federal Monument Agency allegedly adopted a practice of "forc[ing] Jews to donate or trade valuable artworks to the [Gallery] in exchange for export permits for other works." Id., at 168a, ¶ ;33.

The next year Robert Bentley, respondent's brother and fellow heir, retained a Viennese lawyer, Dr. Gustav Rinesch, to locate and recover property stolen from Ferdinand during the war. In January 1948 Dr. Rinesch wrote to the Gallery requesting return of the three Klimts purchased from Dr. Fü ;hrer. A Gallery representative responded, asserting -- falsely, according to the complaint -- that Adele had bequeathed the paintings to the Gallery, and the Gallery had merely permitted Ferdinand to retain them during his lifetime. Id., at 170a, ¶ ;40.

Later the same year Dr. Rinesch enlisted the support of Gallery officials to obtain export permits for many of Ferdinand's remaining works of art. In exchange, Dr. Rinesch, purporting to represent respondent and her fellow heirs, signed a document "acknowledg[ing] and accept[ing] Ferdinand's declaration that in the event of his death he wished to follow the wishes of his deceased wife to donate" the Klimt paintings to the Gallery. Id., at 177a, ¶ ;56. In addition, Dr. Rinesch assisted the Gallery in obtaining both the painting Dr. Fü ;hrer had kept for himself and the one he had sold to the Museum of the City of Vienna.*fn3 At no time during these transactions, however, did Dr. Rinesch have respondent's permission either "to negotiate on her behalf or to allow the [Gallery] to obtain the Klimt paintings." Id., at 178a, ¶ ;61.

In 1998 a journalist examining the Gallery's files discovered documents revealing that at all relevant times Gallery officials knew that neither Adele nor Ferdinand had, in fact, donated the six Klimts to the Gallery. The journalist published a series of articles reporting his findings, and specifically noting that Klimt's first portrait of Adele, "which all the [Gallery] publications represented as having been donated to the museum in 1936," had actually been received in 1941, accompanied by a letter from Dr. Fü ;hrer signed " `Heil Hitler.' " Id., at 181a, ¶ ;67.

In response to these revelations, Austria enacted a new restitution law under which individuals who had been coerced into donating artworks to state museums in exchange for export permits could reclaim their property. Respondent -- who had believed, prior to the journalist's investigation, that Adele and Ferdinand had "freely donated" the Klimt paintings to the Gallery before the war -- immediately sought recovery of the paintings and other artworks under the new law. Id., at 178a-179a, ¶ ;61, 182a. A committee of Austrian government officials and art historians agreed to return certain Klimt drawings and porcelain settings that the family had donated in 1948. After what the complaint terms a "sham" proceeding, however, the committee declined to return the six paintings, concluding, based on an allegedly purposeful misreading of Adele's will, that her precatory request had created a binding legal obligation that required her husband to donate the paintings to the Gallery on his death. Id., at 185a.

Respondent then announced that she would file a lawsuit in Austria to recover the paintings. Because Austrian court costs are proportional to the value of the recovery sought (and in this case would total several million dollars, an amount far beyond respondent's means), she requested a waiver. Id., at 189a. The court granted this request in part but still would have required respondent to pay approximately $350,000 to proceed. Ibid. When the Austrian Government appealed even this partial waiver, respondent voluntarily dismissed her suit and filed this action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

II.

Respondent's complaint advances eight causes of action and alleges violations of Austrian, international, and California law.*fn4 It asserts jurisdiction under §2 of the FSIA, which grants federal district courts jurisdiction over civil actions against foreign states "as to any claim for relief in personam with respect to which the foreign state is not entitled to immunity" under either another provision of the FSIA or "any applicable international agreement." 28 U. S. C. §1330(a). The complaint further asserts that petitioners are not entitled to immunity under the FSIA because the Act's "expropriation exception," §1605(a)(3), expressly exempts from immunity all cases involving "rights in property taken in violation of international law," provided the property has a commercial connection to the United States or the agency or instrumentality that owns the property is engaged in commercial activity here.*fn5

Petitioners filed a motion to dismiss raising several defenses including a claim of sovereign immunity.*fn6 Their immunity argument proceeded in two steps. First, they claimed that as of 1948, when much of their alleged wrongdoing took place, they would have enjoyed absolute immunity from suit in United States courts.*fn7 Proceeding from this premise, petitioners next contended that nothing in the FSIA should be understood to divest them of that immunity retroactively.

The District Court rejected this argument, concluding both that the FSIA applies retroactively to pre-1976 actions and that the Act's expropriation exception extends to respondent's specific claims. Only the former conclusion concerns us here. Presuming that our decision in Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U. S. 244 (1994), governed its retroactivity analysis, the court "first consider[ed] whether Congress expressly stated the [FSIA's] reach." 142 F. Supp., at 1199. Finding no such statement, the court then asked whether application of the Act to petitioners' 1948 actions "would impair rights [petitioners] possessed when [they] acted, impose new duties on [them], or increase [their] liability for past conduct." Ibid. Because it deemed the FSIA "a jurisdictional statute that does not alter substantive legal rights," the court answered this second question in the negative and accordingly found the Act controlling. Id., at 1201. As further support for this finding, the court noted that the FSIA itself provides that " `[c]laims of foreign states to immunity should henceforth be decided by courts of the United States ... in conformity with the principles set forth in this chapter.' " Ibid. (quoting 28 U. S. C. §1602) (emphasis in District Court opinion). In the court's view, this language suggests the Act "is to be applied to all cases decided after its enactment regardless of when the plaintiff's cause of action may have accrued." 142 F. Supp. 2d, at 1201.

The Court of Appeals agreed that the FSIA applies to this case.*fn8 Rather than endorsing the District Court's reliance on the Act's jurisdictional nature, however, the panel reasoned that applying the FSIA to Austria's alleged wrongdoing was not impermissibly retroactive because Austria could not legitimately have expected to receive immunity for that wrongdoing even in 1948 when it occurred. The court rested that conclusion on an analysis of American courts' then-prevalent practice of deferring to case-by-case immunity determinations by the State Department, and on that Department's expressed policy, as of 1949, of " `reliev[ing] American courts from any restraint upon the exercise of their jurisdiction to pass upon the validity of the acts of Nazi officials.' " 317 F. 3d, at 965 (quoting Press Release No. 296, Jurisdiction of United States Courts Re Suits for Identifiable Property Involved in Nazi Forced Transfers (emphasis deleted)).

We granted certiorari, 539 U. S. 987 (2003), and now affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals, though on different reasoning.

III.

Chief Justice Marshall's opinion in Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon, 7 Cranch 116 (1812), is generally viewed as the source of our foreign sovereign immunity jurisprudence. In that case, the libellants claimed to be the rightful owners of a French ship that had taken refuge in the port of Philadelphia. The Court first emphasized that the jurisdiction of the United States over persons and property within its territory "is susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself," and thus foreign sovereigns have no right to immunity in our courts. Id., at 136. Chief Justice Marshall went on to explain, however, that as a matter of comity, members of the international community had implicitly agreed to waive the exercise of jurisdiction over other sovereigns in certain classes of cases, such as those involving foreign ministers or the person of the sovereign.*fn9 Accepting a suggestion advanced by the Executive Branch, see id., at 134, the Chief Justice concluded that the implied waiver theory also served to exempt the Schooner Exchange -- "a national armed vessel ... of the emperor of France" -- from United States courts' jurisdiction. Id., at 145-146.*fn10

In accordance with Chief Justice Marshall's observation that foreign sovereign immunity is a matter of grace and comity rather than a constitutional requirement, this Court has "consistently ... deferred to the decisions of the political branches -- in particular, those of the Executive Branch -- on whether to take jurisdiction" over particular actions against foreign sovereigns and their instrumentalities. Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U. S. 480, 486 (1983) (citing Ex parte Peru, 318 U. S. 578, 586-590 (1943); Republic of Mexico v. Hoffman, 324 U. S. 30, 33-36 (1945)). Until 1952 the Executive Branch followed a policy of requesting immunity in all actions against friendly sovereigns. 461 U. S., at 486. In that year, however, the State Department concluded that "immunity should no longer be granted in certain types of cases."*fn11 App. A to Brief for Petitioners 1a. In a letter to the Attorney General, the Acting Legal Adviser for the Secretary of State, Jack B. Tate, explained that the Department would thereafter apply the "restrictive theory" of sovereign immunity:

"A study of the law of sovereign immunity reveals the existence of two conflicting concepts of sovereign immunity, each widely held and firmly established. According to the classical or absolute theory of sovereign immunity, a sovereign cannot, without his consent, be made a respondent in the courts of another sovereign. According to the newer or restrictive theory of sovereign immunity, the immunity of the sovereign is recognized with regard to sovereign or public acts (jure imperii) of a state, but not with respect to private acts (jure gestionis). ... [I]t will hereafter be the Department's policy to follow the restrictive theory ... in the consideration of requests of foreign governments for a grant of sovereign immunity." Id., at 1a, 4a-5a.

As we explained in our unanimous opinion in Verlinden, the change in State Department policy wrought by the "Tate Letter" had little, if any, impact on federal courts' approach to immunity analyses: "As in the past, initial responsibility for deciding questions of sovereign immunity fell primarily upon the Executive acting through the State Department," and courts continued to "abid[e] by" that Department's " `suggestions of immunity.' " 461 U. S., at 487. The change did, however, throw immunity determinations into some disarray, as "foreign nations often placed diplomatic pressure on the State Department," and political considerations sometimes led the Department to file "suggestions of immunity in cases where immunity would not have been available under the restrictive theory." Id., at 487-488. Complicating matters further, when foreign nations failed to request immunity from the State Department:

"[T]he responsibility fell to the courts to determine whether sovereign immunity existed, generally by reference to prior State Department decisions. . . . Thus, sovereign immunity determinations were made in two different branches, subject to a variety of factors, sometimes including diplomatic considerations. Not surprisingly, the governing standards were neither clear nor uniformly applied." Ibid.

In 1976 Congress sought to remedy these problems by enacting the FSIA, a comprehensive statute containing a "set of legal standards governing claims of immunity in every civil action against a foreign state or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities." Id., at 488. The Act "codifies, as a matter of federal law, the restrictive theory of sovereign immunity," ibid., and transfers primary responsibility for immunity determinations from the Executive to the Judicial Branch. The preamble states that "henceforth" both federal and state courts should decide claims of sovereign immunity in conformity with the Act's principles. 28 U. S. C. §1602.

The Act itself grants federal courts jurisdiction over civil actions against foreign states, §1330(a),*fn12 and over diversity actions in which a foreign state is the plaintiff, §1332(a)(4); it contains venue and removal provisions, §§1391(f), 1441(d); it prescribes the procedures for obtaining personal jurisdiction over a foreign state, §1330(b); and it governs the extent to which a state's property may be subject to attachment or execution, §§1609-1611. Finally, the Act carves out certain exceptions to its general grant of immunity, including the expropriation exception on which respondent's complaint relies. See supra, at 6-7, and n. 5. These exceptions are central to the Act's functioning: "At the threshold of every action in a district court against a foreign state, ... the court must satisfy itself that one of the exceptions applies," as "subject-matter jurisdiction in any such action depends" on that application. Verlinden, 461 U. S., at 493-494.

IV.

The District Court agreed with respondent that the FSIA's expropriation exception covers petitioners' alleged wrongdoing, 142 F. Supp. 2d, at 1202, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that holding, 317 F. 3d, at 967-969, 974. As noted above, however, we declined to review this aspect of the courts' opinions, confining our grant of certiorari to the issue of the FSIA's general applicability to conduct that occurred prior to the Act's 1976 enactment, and more specifically, prior to the State Department's 1952 adoption of the restrictive theory of sovereign immunity. See supra, at 2, 8-9, and n. 8. We begin our analysis of that issue by explaining why, contrary to the assumption of the District Court, 142 F. Supp. 2d, at 1199-1201, and Court of Appeals, 317 F. 3d, at 963-967, the default rule announced in our opinion in Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U. S. 244 (1994), does not control the outcome in this case.

In Landgraf we considered whether §102 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which permits a party to seek compensatory and punitive damages for certain types of intentional employment discrimination, Rev. Stat. §1977A, as added, 105 Stat. 1072, 42 U. S. C. §1981a(a), and to demand a jury trial if such damages are sought, §1981a(c), applied to an employment discrimination case that was pending on appeal when the statute was enacted. The issue forced us to confront the " `apparent tension' " between our rule that " `a court is to apply the law in effect at the time it renders its decision,' " 511 U. S., at 264 (quoting Bradley v. School Bd. of Richmond, 416 U. S. 696, 711 (1974)), and the seemingly contrary "axiom that `[r]etroactivity is not favored in the law' " and thus that " `congressional enactments ... will not be construed to have retroactive effect unless their language requires this result,' " 511 U. S., at 264 (quoting Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hospital, 488 U. S. 204, 208 (1988)).

Acknowledging that, in most cases, the antiretroactivity presumption is just that -- a presumption, rather than a constitutional command*fn13 -- we examined the rationales that support it. We noted, for example, that "[t]he Legislature's ... responsivity to political pressures poses a risk that it may be tempted to use retroactive legislation as a means of retribution against unpopular groups or individuals," Landgraf, 511 U. S., at 266, and that retroactive statutes may upset settled expectations by " `tak[ing] away or impair[ing] vested rights acquired under existing laws, or creat[ing] a new obligation, impos[ing] a new duty, or attach[ing] a new disability, in respect to transactions or considerations already past,' " id., at 269 (quoting Society for Propagation of the Gospel v. Wheeler, 22 F. Cas. 756, 767 (No. 13,156) (CCNH 1814) (Story, J.)). We further observed that these antiretroactivity concerns are most pressing in cases involving "new provisions affecting contractual or property rights, matters in which predictability and stability are of prime importance." 511 U. S., at 271.

In contrast, we sanctioned the application to all pending and future cases of "intervening" statutes that merely "confe[r] or ous[t] jurisdiction." Id., at 274. Such application, we stated, "usually takes away no substantive right but simply changes the tribunal that is to hear the case." Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). Similarly, the "diminished reliance interests in matters of procedure" permit courts to apply changes in procedural rules "in suits arising before [the rules'] enactment without raising concerns about retroactivity." Id., at 275.

Balancing these competing concerns, we described the presumption against retroactive application in the following terms:

"When a case implicates a federal statute enacted after the events in suit, the court's first task is to determine whether Congress has expressly prescribed the statute's proper reach. If Congress has done so, of course, there is no need to resort to judicial default rules. When, however, the statute contains no such express command the court must determine whether the new statute would have retroactive effect, i.e., whether it would impair rights a party possessed when he acted, increase a party's liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed. If the statute would operate retroactively, our traditional presumption teaches that it does not govern absent clear congressional intent favoring such a result." Id., at 280.*fn14

Though seemingly comprehensive, this inquiry does not provide a clear answer in this case. Although the FSIA's preamble suggests that it applies to preenactment conduct, see infra, at 18, that statement by itself falls short of an "expres[s] prescri[ption of] the statute's proper reach." Under Landgraf, therefore, it is appropriate to ask whether the Act affects substantive rights (and thus would be impermissibly retroactive if applied to preenactment conduct) or addresses only matters of procedure (and thus may be applied to all pending cases regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred). But the FSIA defies such categorization. To begin with, none of the three examples of retroactivity mentioned in the above quotation fits the FSIA's clarification of the law of sovereign immunity. Prior to 1976 foreign states had a justifiable expectation that, as a matter of comity, United States courts would grant them immunity for their public acts (provided the State Department did not recommend otherwise), but they had no "right" to such immunity. Moreover, the FSIA merely opens United States courts to plaintiffs with pre-existing claims against foreign states; the Act neither "increase[s those states'] liability for past conduct" nor "impose[s] new duties with respect to transactions already completed." 511 U. S., at 280. Thus, the Act does not at first appear to "operate retroactively" within the meaning of the Landgraf default rule.

That preliminary conclusion, however, creates some tension with our observation in Verlinden that the FSIA is not simply a jurisdictional statute "concern[ing] access to the federal courts" but a codification of "the standards governing foreign sovereign immunity as an aspect of substantive federal law." 461 U. S., at 496-497 (emphasis added). Moreover, we noted in Verlinden that in any suit against a foreign sovereign, "the plaintiff will be barred from raising his claim in any court in the United States" unless one of the FSIA's exceptions applies, id., at 497 (emphasis added), and we have stated elsewhere that statutes that "creat[e] jurisdiction" where none otherwise exists "spea[k] not just to the power of a particular court but to the substantive rights of the parties as well," Hughes Aircraft Co. v. United States ex rel. Schumer, 520 U. S. 939, 951 (1997) (emphasis in original). Such statutes, we continued, "even though phrased in `jurisdictional' terms, [are] as much subject to our presumption against retroactivity as any other[s]." Ibid.*fn15

Thus, Landgraf's default rule does not definitively resolve this case. In our view, however, Landgraf's antiretroactivity presumption, while not strictly confined to cases involving private rights, is most helpful in that context. Cf. 511 U. S., at 271, n. 25 ("[T]he great majority of our decisions relying upon the antiretroactivity presumption have involved intervening statutes burdening private parties"). The aim of the presumption is to avoid unnecessary post hoc changes to legal rules on which parties relied in shaping their primary conduct. But the principal purpose of foreign sovereign immunity has never been to permit foreign states and their instrumentalities to shape their conduct in reliance on the promise of future immunity from suit in United States courts. Rather, such immunity reflects current political realities and relationships, and aims to give foreign states and their instrumentalities some present "protection from the inconvenience of suit as a gesture of comity." Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U. S. 468, 479 (2003). Throughout history, courts have resolved questions of foreign sovereign immunity by deferring to the "decisions of the political branches ... on whether to take jurisdiction." Verlinden, 461 U. S., at 486. In this sui generis context, we think it more appropriate, absent contraindications, to defer to the most recent such decision -- namely, the FSIA -- than to presume that decision inapplicable merely because it postdates the conduct in question.*fn16

V.

This leaves only the question whether anything in the FSIA or the circumstances surrounding its enactment suggests that we should not apply it to petitioners' 1948 actions. Not only do we answer this question in the negative, but we find clear evidence that Congress intended the Act to apply to preenactment conduct.

To begin with, the preamble of the FSIA expresses Congress' understanding that the Act would apply to all postenactment claims of sovereign immunity. That section provides:

"Claims of foreign states to immunity should henceforth be decided by courts of the United States and of the States in conformity with the principles set forth in this chapter." 28 U. S. C. §1602 (emphasis added).

Though perhaps not sufficient to satisfy Landgraf's "express command" requirement, 511 U. S., at 280, this language is unambiguous: Immunity "claims" -- not actions protected by immunity, but assertions of immunity to suits arising from those actions -- are the relevant conduct regulated by the Act;*fn17 those claims are "henceforth" to be decided by the courts. As the District Court observed, see supra, at 8 (citing 142 F. Supp. 2d, at 1201), this language suggests Congress intended courts to resolve ...


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