WASHINGTON— On Feb. 23, Armenian Americans sharply criticized the decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the Movsesian v. Versicherung case, which would effectively bar Americans of Armenian descent from seeking the return of stolen Armenian Genocide-era insurance assets through U.S. courts, under California law.
“This ruling opens the door for foreign governments to try to roll back the clock on human rights, potentially putting at peril American grassroots efforts—along the lines of the anti-Apartheid, Darfur Genocide, and Free Tibet movements—that so often start at the state and local level, sometimes even against opposition at the federal level, before winning broad acceptance by the American people and the U.S. government,” stated ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian.
“Turkey has no right to hold all three branches of the U.S. government hostage to its irrational and hateful denial of the Armenian Genocide, a crime that has already been broadly recognized by American civil society and government, once by a U.S. president, at least twice by the House of Representatives, 42 times by separate U.S. states, and hundreds of times by municipal governments in nearly every state of our union. There is nothing in this judgment—or in any court ruling—that will stand in the way of our pursuit of a principled U.S. policy in support of a truthful, just, and comprehensive resolution of the Armenian Genocide.”
“Today’s court ruling highlights the ongoing human costs of the White House’s complicity in Turkey’s denials of the Armenian Genocide, and underscores the urgency of President Obama honoring his pledge to properly recognize this crime against humanity,” Hamparian added.
In an 18-page ruling by the 9th Circuit Court, the court found that a California law, which extended the statute of limitations for Armenian Genocide victims and their heirs to bring claims against corporations for unpaid benefits, “intrudes on the federal government’s exclusive power to conduct and regulate foreign affairs.” The decision cites Turkey’s threats against countries that seek to properly commemorate the crime and Obama’s reticence to refer to the crime as “genocide” in his annual commemorative statements as reasons for their conclusion that the law “has a direct impact upon foreign relations and may well adversely affect the power of the central government to deal with those problems.”
The 9th Circuit Court decision specifically states that it does not “offer any opinion about California’s ability to express support for Armenians by, for example, declaring a commemorative day.” Over 42 U.S. states have adopted resolutions or issued proclamations properly commemorating the Armenian Genocide.
Prior to the en banc consideration of the matter on Dec. 14, 2011, California Attorney General Kamala Harris was joined by Hawaii Attorney General David Louie, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin in defending California’s and other states’ rights to enact legislation referring to the Armenian Genocide. In a joint amicus brief, the attorneys general argued that “[a]llowing the federal government to dictate to the states the words they may and may not use…raises a serious issue of federalism.” They also noted that in contrast to other cases preempting state laws, “here no treaty, congressional resolution, or executive agreement establishes a federal foreign policy that conflicts with or displaces” the California statute at hand.
California state and federal legislators, in a separate amicus brief, noted that “there is no precedent for holding a state statute preempted merely because of the terminology that it uses.” To do so would render the foreign affairs doctrine “beyond recognition.” They also assert that unlike other California statutes concerning Holocaust-era or World War II slave labor claims, which have been struck down, “there is no federal action to negotiate an international compensation regime for claims related to the Armenian Genocide.”
The amicus brief was filed on behalf of U.S. Representatives Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and Ed Royce (R-Calif.); Speaker of the California State Assembly John Perez (D-46); Majority Leader of the California State Assembly Charles Calderon (D-58); California State Senators Kevin de León (D-22) and S. Joseph Simitian (D-11); and California State Assembly Members Katcho Achadjian (R-33), Mike Gatto (D-43), and Anthony Portantino (D-44). Former Supreme Court clerk Igor Timofeyev of the international law firm Paul Hastings represented the California legislators pro bono.
Earlier in the case, the Armenian Bar Association, ANCA, Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, Inc., the International Association of Genocide Scholars, Genocide Education Project, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, and Center for the Study of Law and Genocide filed amicus briefs and were represented pro bono by David Balabanian and David Salmons, both partners at the international firm Bingham McCutchen.
Amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs were also submitted by Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), EarthRights International, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Claims for unpaid life insurance policies dating back to the Armenian Genocide were first brought by plaintiff’s attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan. Attorneys representing plaintiffs include Brian Kabateck, Mark Geragos, and Lee Crawford Boyd.
The 9th Circuit case Movsesian v. Versicherung AG involves life insurance claims dating from the Armenian Genocide era. In 2000, California passed a law extending the statute of limitations for life insurance claims that were never paid out, in some cases because insurance companies insisted heirs produce death certificates of relatives who were murdered during the Armenian Genocide, before honoring the policies. The California statute, which was introduced by former State Senator and current Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal Charles “Chuck” Poochigian and former State Senator and current Congresswoman Jackie Speier, allowed California residents to file until Dec. 31, 2010. The law has since been amended through legislation introduced by State Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-43), extending the statute of limitations to file claims until Dec. 31, 2016. Defendant German insurance companies, which are being represented by the Los Angeles office of Mayer Brown, have been joined by the Republic of Turkey in their attempts to strike down California’s law, claiming there is an “express federal policy” to prohibit states from any reference to the Armenian Genocide.