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Legal Disputes Between a State and Foreign Citizens

Article III of the U.S. Constitution establishes federal courts and outlines what types of cases they can hear. One such category of case is those that involve foreign citizens and governments. 

What Article III, Section 2, Clause 1 Says:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

When Do U.S. Courts Have Jurisdiction Over Foreign Citizens?

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

The scope of this jurisdiction has been limited both by judicial decisions and the Eleventh Amendment. By judicial application of the law of nations, a foreign state is immune from suit in the federal courts without its consent,1 an immunity which extends to suits brought by states of the American Union.2 Conversely, the Eleventh Amendment has been construed to bar suits by foreign states against a state of the United States.3 Consequently, the jurisdiction conferred by this clause comprehends only suits brought by a state against citizens or subjects of foreign states, by foreign states against American citizens, citizens of a state against the citizens or subjects of a foreign state, and by aliens against citizens of a state.4

Suits by Foreign States

The privilege of a recognized foreign state to sue in the courts of another state upon the principle of comity is recognized by both international law and American constitutional law.5 To deny a sovereign this privilege "would manifest a want of comity and friendly feeling."6 Although national sovereignty is continuous, a suit in behalf of a national sovereign can be maintained in the courts of the United States only by a government which has been recognized by the political branches of our own government as the authorized government of the foreign state.7 As the responsible agency for the conduct of foreign affairs, the State Department is the normal means of suggesting to the courts that a sovereign be granted immunity from a particular suit.8 Once a foreign government avails itself of the privilege of suing in the courts of the United States, it subjects itself to the procedure and rules of decision governing those courts and accepts whatever liabilities the court may decide to be a reasonable incident of bringing the suit.9 The rule that a foreign nation instituting a suit in a federal district court cannot invoke sovereign immunity as a defense to a counterclaim growing out of the same transaction has been extended to deny a claim of immunity as a defense to a counterclaim extrinsic to the subject matter of the suit but limited to the amount of the sovereign's claim.10 Moreover, certain of the benefits extending to a domestic sovereign do not extend to a foreign sovereign suing in the courts of the United States. A foreign state does not receive the benefit of the rule which exempts the United States and its member states from the operation of the statute of limitations, because those considerations of public policy back of the rule are regarded as absent in the case of the foreign sovereign.11

Indian Tribes

Within the terms of Article III, an Indian tribe is not a foreign state and hence cannot sue in the courts of the United States. This rule was applied in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia,12 where Chief Justice Marshall conceded that the Cherokee Nation was a state, but not a foreign state, being a part of the United States and dependent upon it. Other passages of the opinion specify the elements essential of a foreign state for purposes of jurisdiction, such as sovereignty and independence.

Narrow Construction of the Jurisdiction

As in cases of diversity jurisdiction, suits brought to the federal courts under this category must clearly state in the record the nature of the parties. As early as 1809, the Supreme Court ruled that a federal court could not take jurisdiction of a cause where the defendants were described in the record as "late of the district of Maryland," but were not designated as citizens of Maryland, and plaintiffs were described as aliens and subjects of the United Kingdom.13 The meticulous care manifested in this case appeared twenty years later when the Court narrowly construed § 11 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, vesting the federal courts with jurisdiction when an alien was a party, in order to keep it within the limits of this clause. The judicial power was further held not to extend to private suits in which an alien is a party, unless a citizen is the adverse party.14 This interpretation was extended in 1870 by a holding that if there is more than one plaintiff or defendant, each plaintiff or defendant must be competent to sue or liable to suit.15 These rules, however, do not preclude a suit between citizens of the same state if the plaintiffs are merely nominal parties and are suing on behalf of an alien.16


  1. The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 116 (1812)Berizzi Bros. Co. v. S.S. Pesaro, 271 U.S. 562 (1926)Compania Espanola v. The Navemar, 303 U.S. 68 (1938)Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 134 (1938).
  2. Principality of Monaco v. Mississippi, 292 U.S. 313, 330 (1934).
  3. 292 U.S. at 330.
  4. But, in the absence of a federal question, there is no basis for jurisdiction between the subjects of a foreign state. Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959). The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-538, 90 Stat. 2891, amending various sections of title 28 U.S.C., comprehensively provided jurisdictional bases for suits by and against foreign states and appears as well to comprehend suits by an alien against a foreign state which would be beyond the constitutional grant. However, in the only case in which that matter has been an issue before it, the Court has construed the Act as creating a species of federal question jurisdiction. Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480 (1983).
  5. The Sapphire, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 164, 167 (1871).
  6. 78 U.S. at 167. This case also held that a change in the person of the sovereign does not affect the continuity or rights of national sovereignty, including the right to bring suit or to continue one that has been brought.
  7. Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 137 (1938), citing Jones v. United States, 137 U.S. 202, 212 (1890); Matter of Lehigh Valley R.R., 265 U.S. 573 (1924). Whether a government is to be regarded as the legal representative of a foreign state is, of course, a political question.
  8. Ex parte Peru, 318 U.S. 578, 589 (1943), distinguishing Compania Espanola v. The Navemar, 303 U.S. 68 (1938), which held that where the Executive Department neither recognizes nor disallows the claim of immunity, the court is free to examine that question for itself. Under the latter circumstances, however, a claim that a foreign vessel is a public ship and immune from suit must be substantiated to the satisfaction of the federal court.
  9. Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 134 (1938). Among other benefits which the Court cited as not extending to foreign states as litigant included exemption from costs and from giving discovery. Decisions were also cited to the effect that a sovereign plaintiff should so far as the thing can be done, be put in the same position as a body corporate.
  10. National Bank v. Republic of China, 348 U.S. 356, 361 (1955), citing 26 Dept. State Bull. 984 (1952), in which the Department "pronounced broadly against recognizing sovereign immunity for the commercial operations of a foreign government."
  11. Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 135, 137 (1938), citing precedents to the effect that a sovereign plaintiff "should be put in the same position as a body corporate."
  12. 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 1, 16–20 (1831).
  13. Hodgson & Thompson v. Bowerbank, 9 U.S. (5 Cr.) 303 (1809).
  14. Jackson v. Twentyman, 27 U.S. (2 Pet.) 136 (1829)Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959).
  15. Coal Co. v. Blatchford, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 172 (1871)See, however, Lacassagne v. Chapuis, 144 U.S. 119 (1892), which held that a lower federal court had jurisdiction over a proceeding to impeach its former decree, although the parties were new and were both aliens.
  16. Browne v. Strode, 9 U.S. (5 Cr.) 303 (1809).



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