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Supreme Court Rejects Calif. Holocaust Disclosure Law

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NU Online News Service, June 23, 2003, 5:35 p.m. EDT — Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a California law requiring insurance companies doing business in the state to disclose claims payment information and other information relating to Holocaust-era insurance policies.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court has ruled that the California law, called the Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act, interferes with the conduct of foreign policy by the president of the United States and thus is preempted.

The court says the White House has negotiated executive agreements with Germany, Austria and France aimed at resolving controversies surrounding Holocaust-era insurance policies that rely on voluntary settlement funds and disclosure of policy information.

However, the court says, HVIRA takes a different approach by threatening to revoke the license of any insurance company that does not follow the law’s disclosure requirements.

This undercuts the White House’s diplomatic discretion, the court says in an opinion written by Justice David Souter.

In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argues that HVIRA responds to the long-frustrated efforts of Holocaust victims and their descendents to collect unpaid insurance proceeds.

The federal government has become more active in this area recently, undertaking foreign policy initiatives aimed at resolving these claims, Ginsburg writes.

While the federal approach differs from California’s approach, Ginsburg writes, no executive agreement or other formal expression of foreign policy disapproves of state laws like HVIRA.

Absent such a statement, she says, the California law should stand.

In the case of American Insurance Association v. Garamendi, the Washington-based AIA, joined by several American and European insurers, challenged the constitutionality of HVIRA, arguing that the law violates the authority of the president to conduct foreign policy.

A federal district court ruled in favor of AIA, stating that HVIRA violates the due process rights of insurance companies. The district court said HVIRA mandates license suspension for nonperformance of what may be impossible tasks without allowing for a meaningful hearing.

But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, stating that due process does not require states to grant insurers the opportunity to raise an impossibility excuse for noncompliance with the law.

In reversing the 9th Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court outlined the various efforts of the federal government to resolve Holocaust-era claims and contrasted them with California’s approach.

“The basic fact is that California seeks to use an iron fist where the President has consistently chosen kid gloves,” the court says.

While there are powerful arguments that the iron fist works better, the court says, that is beside the point. It is not the court’s business to judge the wisdom of federal government policy, the court says.

The question, the court says, is whether the state law conflicts with the federal approach. In this case, the court says, the evidence is more than sufficient to demonstrate that HVIRA stands in the way of the president’s diplomatic objectives.

Ginsburg, however, says that allowing HVIRA to stand would not compromise the ability of the president to speak with one voice for the nation.

She says the president has not taken a clear stand on this issue and courts should not presume to preempt state laws on foreign policy grounds when they rely not on legislative or executive text, but only on inference and implication.


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