The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 19761×1. Pub. L. No. 94-583, 90 Stat. 2891 (codified in scattered sections of 28 U.S.C.). (FSIA) immunizes foreign state property in the United States from attachment in U.S. courts,2×2. 28 U.S.C. § 1609 (2012). except in the case of certain assets “used for a commercial activity in the United States.”3×3. Id. § 1610(a). Last term, in Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd.,4×4. 134 S. Ct. 2250 (2014). the Supreme Court held that the FSIA does not also restrict the discovery of a foreign state’s extraterritorial assets in aid of postjudgment attachment.5×5. See id. at 2256–57. NML is consistent with the Roberts Court’s generally formalistic approach to statutory interpretation in foreign relations law cases. However, in some recent cases the Roberts Court has considered the potential international consequences of its rulings. By contrast, the NML Court refused to consider such consequences, suggesting that its reasoning was not simply a reflection of recent trends in the Court’s jurisprudence, but also owed much to the particular nature, text, and history of the FSIA.
In December 2001, the Argentine government, facing economic collapse, ceased paying its external debt.6×6. EM Ltd. v. Republic of Argentina, 473 F.3d 463, 466 (2d Cir. 2007). NML Capital, Ltd. (NML), a holder of Argentine bonds, filed suit in the Southern District of New York to collect on its bonds.7×7. EM Ltd. v. Republic of Argentina, 695 F.3d 201, 203 (2d Cir. 2012). U.S. courts had jurisdiction over Argentina in this matter because of Argentina’s waiver of sovereign immunity in its bond agreements. Id. Since 2003, the district court has ruled in favor of NML in several actions involving claims totaling more than $2.5 billion.8×8. Id. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that Argentina was in breach of its debt agreement with NML, see NML Capital, Ltd. v. Republic of Argentina, 699 F.3d 246, 250 (2d Cir. 2012), and the Supreme Court denied certiorari on that issue on the same day that it released the decision in NML, see Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd., 134 S. Ct. 2819 (2014). Argentina has refused to comply with the court’s rulings and instead has transferred significant assets out of the United States to avoid attachment in U.S. courts.9×9. See NML Capital, Ltd. v. Banco Central de la República Arg., 652 F.3d 172, 178 (2d Cir. 2011). U.S. courts generally lack the authority to attach assets located outside the United States. NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2257. NML in response has launched an extraordinary effort to attach Argentine assets both in the United States and around the world through lawsuits in U.S. and foreign courts respectively.10×10. See EM, 695 F.3d at 203. These attempts have even included the dramatic temporary seizure of an Argentine naval vessel in Ghana and failed plans to seize Argentina’s presidential plane.11×11. See H.C., Argentina and Its Creditors: A Languid Tango, Economist: Americas View (Jan. 16, 2013, 3:14 PM), http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2013/01/argentina-and-its-creditors [http://perma.cc/Y6JK-52XP]. A similar attempt in U.S. courts involved a suit aimed at attaching funds of Argentina’s central bank held with the Federal Reserve. See NML, 652 F.3d at 178. In 2010, NML served subpoenas on Bank of America (BOA) and Banco de la Nación Argentina (BNA), asking for information on assets or accounts owned by Argentina without any territorial limitation.12×12. EM, 695 F.3d at 203–04.
Argentina and both banks filed objections to the subpoenas with the district court.13×13. Id. at 204. The district court ultimately compelled compliance with the subpoenas; while it approved the subpoenas “in principle,” it expected the parties to limit discovery to those assets “reasonably calculated to lead to attachable property.”14×14. Id. at 204–05. After the subpoenas were narrowed, BOA, but not BNA, began complying.15×15. Id. at 205. The district court subsequently issued a second order requiring BNA to comply.16×16. Id. Argentina appealed the court’s first order to the Second Circuit, arguing that it violated the FSIA.17×17. Id.
The Second Circuit affirmed the order.18×18. Id. at 210. Writing for the panel, Judge Walker19×19. Judge Walker was joined by Judges McLaughlin and Cabranes. held that the order did not infringe upon Argentina’s sovereign immunity.20×20. EM, 695 F.3d at 205. The court first established its jurisdiction to review Argentina’s appeal.21×21. See id. at 205–07. The court determined that under the collateral order doctrine, the sovereign immunity issue was distinguishable from questions surrounding the actual attachment of the assets and the discovery order represented the district court’s final determination of the issue. See id. at 206. Then, noting that “the district court’s power to order discovery . . . does not derive from its ultimate ability to attach the property in question,” the court considered whether the FSIA overrode ordinary federal procedural rules, which it viewed as authorizing extraterritorial discovery.22×22. Id. at 208. It ultimately determined that the FSIA did not provide for immunity against discovery orders.23×23. Id. The panel also emphasized that the subpoenas were not directed against Argentina itself but against commercial banks, which could not assert immunity.24×24. Id. at 210.
The Supreme Court affirmed.25×25. NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2258. Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia26×26. Justice Scalia was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor did not participate in the decision of the case. held that the FSIA does not immunize foreign sovereigns against discovery orders in postjudgment execution proceedings, and thus ordinary discovery rules apply.27×27. See NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2256–57; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 69(a)(2) (“In aid of the judgment or execution, the judgment creditor . . . may obtain discovery from any person — including the judgment debtor — as provided in these rules or by the procedure of the state where the court is located.”). Assuming without deciding that the discovery NML had requested was within the scope of discovery ordinarily authorized by federal procedural rules, the Court focused on the narrow question of “whether the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act specifies a different rule when the judgment debtor is a foreign state.”28×28. NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2255. Argentina had claimed in its reply brief that Rule 69 discovery only applied to assets executable by U.S. courts, which would necessarily preclude the discovery of extraterritorial assets; the Court declined to “revive [this] forfeited argument” that was not raised by Argentina in its petition for certiorari. Id. at 2255 n.2.
Before answering this question directly, the Court summarized the history of the U.S. sovereign immunity regime. For nearly two centuries, the Court deferred to sovereign immunity decisions made by the Executive on a case-by-case basis.29×29. Id. at 2255. However, in 1952 the State Department changed its approach, endorsing the “‘restrictive’ theory of sovereign immunity,” which only immunizes “a foreign sovereign’s public, noncommercial acts.”30×30. Id. (quoting Verlinden B.V. v. Cent. Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480, 487 (1983)). Under that doctrine, which the Court described as “thr[owing] immunity determinations into some disarray,”31×31. Id. (quoting Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677, 690 (2004)) (internal quotation marks omitted). both courts and the Executive were involved in defining the scope of sovereign immunity.32×32. Id. Under the 1952 regime, the Executive sometimes ignored the limits of the “restrictive” theory and courts were involved in interpreting the meaning of that theory in cases where the Executive was silent. Id. (quoting Verlinden, 461 U.S. at 487). In 1976 the FSIA, which enacted the present sovereign immunity regime, “abated the bedlam”33×33. Id. by establishing a “comprehensive set of legal standards governing claims of immunity in every civil action against a foreign state.”34×34. Id. (quoting Verlinden, 461 U.S. at 488) (internal quotation marks omitted). The comprehensive nature of the FSIA’s approach meant, the Court said, that questions of foreign sovereign immunity must be examined purely in light of the FSIA’s text.35×35. Id. at 2256. As Justice Scalia stated, that text guaranteed, with specified exceptions, two forms of immunity to foreign states: immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, which Argentina waived in its bond agreement, and immunity from attachment of assets in the United States.36×36. Id. There was, the Court emphasized, “no third provision forbidding or limiting discovery in aid of execution of a foreign-sovereign judgment debtor’s assets.”37×37. Id. Without a “plain statement” to the contrary, the Court held, the FSIA’s text should not be understood to preclude ordinary federal discovery rules.38×38. Id. at 2256–57 (quoting Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale v. U.S. Dist. Court, 482 U.S. 522, 539 (1987)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Court then considered and rejected Argentina’s argument that the FSIA impliedly limited discovery to only assets also subject to execution in U.S. courts. It did so for three reasons: First, the Court rejected Argentina’s historical argument. Argentina had argued that pre-FSIA, the assets of foreign states were entitled to absolute execution and discovery immunity.39×39. See id. at 2257. The FSIA, Argentina asserted, only modified this immunity with respect to the limited exceptions to execution immunity codified in the Act, none of which apply to a foreign state’s extraterritorial assets.40×40. See id. Justice Scalia emphasized that Argentina failed to cite a single case supporting the existence of historical absolute execution immunity over a foreign state’s extraterritorial assets.41×41. See id. Second, the Court stated that even if the FSIA’s grant of execution immunity “implie[d] coextensive discovery-in-aid-of-execution immunity,”42×42. Id. Argentina’s argument would still fail because the FSIA only granted execution immunity to assets “in the United States.”43×43. Id. (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1609 (2012)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Third, the Court stressed that “NML does not yet know what property Argentina has”44×44. Id. and the FSIA should not be understood to prohibit an order ultimately aimed at assisting NML in “identify[ing] where Argentina may be holding property that is subject to execution.”45×45. Id. at 2258. The Court conceded that had the discovery order been specifically addressed to assets that definitively could not be attached in U.S. or foreign courts, the order would be unenforceable due to relevance concerns. Id. at 2257 (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1)).
Finally, the Court rejected the claim that Congress could not have intended to allow for “postjudgment discovery ‘clearinghouses’” for foreign states’ assets.46×46. Id. at 2258. Justice Scalia did not consider relevant the assertion, made by both Argentina and the United States (in an amicus brief), that doing so would have “worrisome international-relations consequences.”47×47. Id. The question of Congress’s purpose, along with the potential foreign relations consequences of such broad discovery orders, were, he argued, a “riddle not [the Court’s] to solve.”48×48. Id.
Justice Ginsburg dissented. She found that a broader discovery inquiry “would not be ‘relevant to execution in the first place,’”49×49. Id. at 2259 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (quoting id. at 2257 (majority opinion)) (internal quotation marks omitted). and would have limited the scope of discovery “to property used here or abroad ‘in connection with . . . commercial activities.’”50×50. Id. (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (alteration in original) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1602 (2012)). With respect to property in the United States, the FSIA bars the execution of noncommercial property.51×51. See id. As for property outside the United States, Justice Ginsburg argued that unless NML could prove “that other nations would allow unconstrained access to Argentina’s assets,” U.S. courts should not “indulge the assumption that . . . the sky may be the limit for attaching a foreign sovereign’s property.”52×52. Id.
The decision in NML represents the apotheosis of the Roberts Court’s formalist approach to matters of foreign relations law. The Roberts Court has marked its approach to foreign relations law matters with a focus on statutory text and the application of clear-cut and inflexible rules, as opposed to a functionalist understanding that emphasizes case-by-case analysis, statutory purpose, and the needs of the Executive Branch. Yet the Roberts Court’s relative formalism compared to its predecessors has not prevented it from sometimes addressing the potential foreign affairs consequences of its decisions. In NML, however, the Court chose to leave such policy concerns to the political branches. This seeming inconsistency is best explained by the Court’s view of the FSIA as establishing a comprehensive foreign sovereign immunity regime, which is informed by the FSIA’s history and text, and has often led the Court to interpret the FSIA in a more formalist mode than it interprets other foreign relations law statutes or provisions.
The NML Court’s formalist, text-focused analysis of the FSIA, executed with little deference to the Executive Branch, echoes the Court’s recent approach to other cases bearing on issues of foreign relations. The Roberts Court has overseen the normalization of foreign relations law,53×53. See generally Ganesh Sitaraman & Ingrid Wuerth, The Normalization of Foreign Relations Law, 128 Harv. L. Rev. (forthcoming May 2015). moving away from the Supreme Court’s once largely flexible and functionalist approach.54×54. See Harlan Grant Cohen, Formalism and Distrust: Foreign Affairs Law in the Roberts Court, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2015) (manuscript at 5–6), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2412103 [http://perma.cc/5S8Y-K2AT] (“[I]n a string of decisions . . . the Roberts Court has jettisoned its traditional functionalism in favor of formalism.”). For examples of the Court’s former functionalist approach, see American Insurance Ass’n v. Garamendi, 539 U.S. 396, 413 (2003) (finding that an executive agreement preempts state law in part because of the principles “that animated the Constitution’s allocation of the foreign relations power to the National Government”); and Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 431–32 (1964) (comparing the judicial and executive roles in foreign relations as part of the justification behind the act of state doctrine). For example, the Roberts Court has used ordinary statutory canons in cases that touched upon issues of international law,55×55. See, e.g., Bond v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 2077, 2089–90 (2014) (applying the federalism canon of construction to a statute implementing the international Convention on Chemical Weapons); Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 133 S. Ct. 1659, 1665 (2013) (applying the presumption against extraterritoriality to the Alien Tort Statute). has restricted the use of the flexible and standard-based political question doctrine,56×56. See Zivotofsky v. Clinton, 132 S. Ct. 1421, 1430 (2012) (holding that the political question doctrine did not apply to a case implicating the President’s power to recognize foreign sovereigns). and has applied a similarly rigorous textual analysis to an international treaty as it would to an act of Congress.57×57. See Medellin v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491, 514 (2008) (endorsing the use of a “time-honored textual approach” to treaty interpretation as opposed to “a multifactor, judgment-by-judgment analysis”). Furthermore, the Roberts Court has shown little deference to the Executive in cases that implicate national security and foreign policy.58×58. See Cohen, supra note 54 (manuscript at 5). For example, the Court decided against the United States (as a party or an amicus) in three of the five cases last Term that arguably touch on matters of international or foreign relations law. See Andrew Pincus, The Solicitor General’s Report Card, SCOTUSblog (July 2, 2014, 3:40 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/07/the-solicitor-generals-report-card [http://perma.cc/DE67-7CAS]. The five cases were NML, 134 S. Ct. 2250; Bond, 134 S. Ct. 2077; BG Group PLC v. Republic of Argentina, 134 S. Ct. 1198 (2014); Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, 134 S. Ct. 1224 (2014); and Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746 (2014). The Court rejected the U.S. position in the first three. In Bond, Justice Breyer showed clear skepticism toward the Solicitor General’s argument that the case could have national security implications. See Transcript of Oral Argument at 40, Bond, 134 S. Ct. 2077 (No. 12-158), http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/12-158_8m58.pdf [http://perma.cc/BQT8-U59C]. In that same vein, the Court in NML showed little deference to the position of the U.S. government59×59. See NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2258 (dismissing the U.S. government’s objections in a single paragraph). and situated the terms of the debate firmly within the four walls of the FSIA’s text, rejecting an approach founded in the common law presumptive immunity of foreign states.60×60. Compare id. at 2257 (rejecting a common law approach to immunity in favor of the FSIA’s more narrow protections), with Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 637 F.3d 783, 796 (7th Cir. 2011) (analyzing the FSIA in light of the common law presumption of sovereign immunity).
But in its treatment of the foreign policy concerns raised by Argentina and the United States, the Court in NML went even further with its formalist reasoning than it has done in these similar decisions. Despite its embrace of formalism, the Roberts Court has remained sensitive to the global impact of its rulings.61×61. See, e.g., Arizona v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2492, 2498 (2012) (taking into account the possibility of “harmful reciprocal treatment of American citizens abroad” when invalidating an Arizona immigration statute); see also Kenneth Anderson, Readings: Through Our Glass Darkly: From ‘Universal’ to ‘Extraterritorial’?, Lawfare (June 23, 2014, 8:00 PM), http://www.lawfareblog.com/2014/06/readings-through-our-glass-darkly-from-universal-to-extraterritorial [http://perma.cc/ZWU7-M4VF] (arguing that the Court has been “seeking to rein in the cross-border reach of US courts”). In NML, the Court acknowledged the U.S. government’s concern for the potentially “worrisome international-relations consequences” of expansive global discovery orders,62×62. NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2258. emphasizing that district courts are free to exercise their discretion under law other than the FSIA and take into account “comity interests and the burden that the discovery might cause to the foreign state” when determining whether discovery is warranted in a particular case.63×63. Id. at 2258 n.6 (quoting Brief for Respondent at 25, NML, 134 S. Ct. 2250 (No. 12-842), 2014 WL 1260423, at *25) (internal quotation mark omitted). But the Court flatly refused to consider these policy concerns a second time as part of its statutory interpretation of the FSIA, instead referring the parties to the “branch of government with authority to amend the Act.”64×64. Id. at 2258. Justices Scalia and Breyer were similarly dismissive of these policy concerns in oral argument. See Transcript of Oral Argument at 11, 17–18, NML, 134 S. Ct. 2250 (No. 12-842), http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/12-842_3c45.pdf [http://perma.cc/63Z9-35TD].
In contrast, the Roberts Court has taken similar foreign policy considerations more directly into account in two recent cases, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.65×65. 133 S. Ct. 1659 (2013). and Daimler AG v. Bauman.66×66. 134 S. Ct. 746 (2014). For a more detailed discussion of Daimler, see The Supreme Court, 2013 Term — Leading Cases, 128 Harv. L. Rev. 311 (2014). In Kiobel, the Roberts Court applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to the Alien Tort Statute67×67. 28 U.S.C. § 1350 (2012). (ATS), restricting the jurisdiction of U.S. courts over certain international law claims that lack a significant U.S. nexus.68×68. See Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. at 1669. As in NML, the Court chose not to completely defer to the position of the U.S. government.69×69. The government argued, in contrast to the Court, that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not directly apply to the creation of causes of action under the ATS. See Supplemental Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae in Partial Support of Affirmance at 3, Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. 1659 (No. 10-1491), 2012 WL 2161290, at *3. However, the Kiobel Court was more willing to take note of the foreign policy implications of its ruling.70×70. See Caroline Kaeb & David Scheffer, The Paradox of Kiobel in Europe, 107 Am. J. Int’l L. 852, 852 (2013) (“‘[F]oreign policy concerns’ and the overarching goal to avoid diplomatic tensions with foreign sovereigns are themes heavily informing the Roberts opinion.” (alteration in original) (quoting Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. at 1664)); Recent Case, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 1493, 1500 (2014) (referring to this concern with international relations consequences as an “underlying principle” of Kiobel); The Supreme Court, 2012 Term — Leading Cases, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 308, 316 (2013) (emphasizing Kiobel’s application of “freestanding foreign policy consequences”). For example, the Court referenced the “serious foreign policy consequences” of accepting a broad view of the jurisdiction granted by the ATS as part of its analysis of the statute’s history and the reasons for its enactment. Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. at 1669. Notably, unlike in NML where it found that existing doctrines at the district court level already served to constrain overly expansive discovery, the Court in Kiobel chose not to accept the invitation of the United States in its amicus brief to merely apply doctrines such as exhaustion and forum non conveniens with “special vigor in ATS cases.”71×71. Supplemental Brief for the United States, supra note 69, at 24. Instead, it found foreign policy concerns directly applicable to its statutory interpretation analysis. These concerns animated the Court’s decision to apply the presumption against extraterritoriality, which has traditionally been applied only to statutes regulating extraterritorial conduct, to the ATS, a purely jurisdictional statute.72×72. See Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. at 1664.
Daimler, another recent case, restricted the scope of general personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants under the Due Process Clause.73×73. See Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746, 751 (2014). Here too, in addition to applying its previous personal jurisdiction precedents, the Roberts Court took note of the “risks to international comity” posed by an “expansive view of general jurisdiction,” warning that highly expansive U.S. jurisdictional rules could reduce the willingness of foreign nations to recognize American judgments.74×74. Id. at 763.
Kiobel, Daimler, and NML have a number of similarities. The cases all plausibly implicated U.S. foreign relations interests. The expansive discovery orders at issue in NML might have conflicted with foreign laws,75×75. Cf., e.g., Linde v. Arab Bank, PLC, 706 F.3d 92, 111, 120 (2d Cir. 2013) (upholding sanctions against a foreign bank for violating a discovery order that would have forced it to breach foreign bank secrecy laws), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 2869 (2014). invited reciprocal behavior from other nations aimed at the United States,76×76. See Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioner at 19–21, NML, 134 S. Ct. 2250 (No. 12-842), 2014 WL 827994, at *19–21. or given rise to foreign resentment.77×77. See id. at *21–22. These harms are not obviously less serious than those in Kiobel — where there was a risk of “diplomatic strife” associated with authorizing suits in U.S. courts over “conduct occurring in the territory of another sovereign,”78×78. Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 133 S. Ct. 1659, 1669 (2013). — or those in Daimler — where there was a risk of conflict with foreign doctrines of limited personal jurisdiction.79×79. See Daimler, 134 S. Ct. at 763. Justice Scalia did, however, express some skepticism during the NML oral argument regarding the severity of the foreign relations harms at issue. See Transcript of Oral Argument, supra note 64, at 22 (highlighting the fact that no foreign state had filed an amicus brief protesting the discovery order). The three cases also all involved private plaintiffs, which the Court has acknowledged pose a particular risk of foreign policy harm.80×80. See F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. v. Empagran S.A., 542 U.S. 155, 171 (2004) (“[P]rivate plaintiffs often are unwilling to exercise the degree of self-restraint and consideration of foreign governmental sensibilities generally exercised by the U.S. Government.” (alteration in original) (quoting Joseph P. Griffin, Extraterritoriality in U.S. and EU Antitrust Enforcement, 67 Antitrust L.J. 159, 194 (1999)) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Nevertheless, while the Kiobel and Daimler Courts viewed the foreign policy harms as integral to their interpretive analysis, the NML Court saw them primarily as a discretionary factor for the district courts to consider.81×81. One difference between the cases is that Kiobel and Daimler dealt with jurisdictional questions, while NML involved questions of procedure once jurisdiction had been established. However, while this factor can sometimes affect the severity of the foreign policy harms at issue, see, e.g., EM Ltd. v. Republic of Argentina, 695 F.3d 201, 210 (2d Cir. 2012) (explaining why courts should be more careful when determining jurisdictional issues in sovereign immunity cases), there is no reason to treat these questions differently in terms of the policy harms detailed above.
The Court’s different approach in NML is best explained by examining the FSIA’s text and history. In contrast to the Due Process Clause and the ATS, which are seventeen82×82. See U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. and thirty-three words83×83. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350 (2012). respectively, the FSIA is a detailed eight-page statute.84×84. See Pub. L. No. 94-583, 90 Stat. 2891 (codified in scattered sections of 28 U.S.C.). For this reason, the Court is engaged more heavily in the process of judicial lawmaking when it formulates rules of personal jurisdiction or federal common law claims under the ATS than when it applies the law of foreign sovereign immunity.85×85. See Anderson, supra note 61 (“[I]t’s just a fact that modern ATS cases put the decisions, remedies, and the evolution of extraterritorial reach into judicial hands.”). And it is precisely the foreign policy consequences of these kinds of judicial, as opposed to congressional, actions that most worry the Court.86×86. See Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 133 S. Ct. 1659, 1664 (2013) (“[T]he danger of unwarranted judicial interference in the conduct of foreign policy is magnified in the context of the ATS, because the question is not what Congress has done but instead what courts may do.”); see also Anderson, supra note 61. By contrast, the Court sees itself as implementing a regime of purely congressional design when it interprets the FSIA; any harmful consequences of that regime are, therefore, a “riddle” for Congress “to solve.”87×87. NML, 134 S. Ct. at 2258.
This explanation is reinforced by the history of the U.S. foreign sovereign immunity regime, which the Court took pains to highlight in NML. Justice Scalia characterized the FSIA as replacing the “bedlam” of the historically politicized process of determining sovereign immunity with an approach that was “comprehensive,” a term that the Court has used “often and advisedly to describe the Act’s sweep.”88×88. Id. at 2255–56 (emphasis omitted). For examples of the Court describing the FSIA in this way, see Republic of Argentina v. Weltover, Inc., 504 U.S. 607, 610–11 (1992) (describing the FSIA as a “comprehensive framework” that “provides the ‘sole basis’ for obtaining jurisdiction over a foreign sovereign in the United States” (quoting Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp., 488 U.S. 428, 434 (1989))); and Amerada Hess, 488 U.S. at 437 (emphasizing the “comprehensiveness” of the FSIA’s statutory scheme). This understanding was evident in Verlinden B.V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria,89×89. 461 U.S. 480 (1983). the first time the Court interpreted the FSIA, where the Act was described as “free[ing] the Government from . . . case-by-case diplomatic pressures [and] clarify[ing] the governing standards.”90×90. Id. at 488. Since Verlinden, the Court has repeatedly endorsed a narrow, text-based interpretation of the Act’s provisions.91×91. See, e.g., Samantar v. Yousuf, 130 S. Ct. 2278, 2282, 2285–89 (2010) (holding that the FSIA does not immunize foreign officials from suit, and including a detailed analysis of the statute’s text); Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677, 700 (2004) (criticizing the lower court for engaging in a “detailed historical inquiry” instead of focusing upon the “FSIA’s clear guidelines”). Further, although it may have previously “‘consistently . . . deferred to the decisions of the . . . Executive Branch . . . on whether to take jurisdiction’ over particular actions against foreign sovereigns,”92×92. Altmann, 541 U.S. at 689 (first alteration in original) (quoting Verlinden, 461 U.S. at 486). the Court showed little concern for the views of the U.S. government in FSIA cases even before the Roberts Court’s recent turn toward formalism.93×93. In none of the pre–Roberts Court cases concerning foreign sovereign immunity since Verlinden did the Court explicitly defer to the Solicitor General’s position. See id. at 701 (“While the United States’ views . . . are of considerable interest to the Court, they merit no special deference.”); Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U.S. 468 (2003); Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, 507 U.S. 349 (1993); Weltover, 504 U.S. 607; Amerada Hess, 488 U.S. 428; First Nat’l City Bank v. Banco Para el Comercio Exterior de Cuba, 462 U.S. 611 (1983). It seems likely, therefore, that in light of the FSIA’s history and purpose, the Court views its text as particularly controlling.94×94. See John C. Balzano, Direct Effect Jurisdiction Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act: Searching for an Integrated Approach, 24 Duke J. Comp. & Int’l L. 1, 5 (2013) (stating that the Court’s approach to interpreting the FSIA has “focus[ed] heavily” on its text at the expense of the “nuance” the Court has used when interpreting other statutes).
NML, then, can be seen as an example both of the Roberts Court’s recent shift toward foreign affairs formalism and of a longer trend of rejecting any role for possible foreign affairs consequences in interpreting the FSIA. Lower courts and commentators should therefore be wary of ascribing too much significance to the NML Court’s ultra-textualist approach outside the specific FSIA context.