In a historic decision and despite pressure from Turkey, President Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. Saturday’s long overdue proclamation from the United States also comes with potential legal benefits for descendents of the Armenian Genocide.
In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung AG. This case was in regards to Section 354.4 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which was a state law that vested California courts with jurisdiction over certain insurance claims brought by Armenian Genocide victims for the unpaid claims for Armenians who died, were deported or escaped to avoid persecution from the Ottoman Empire. One of the defendants of the class action lawsuit brought by the plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Section 354.4 is preempted under the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. Under the doctrine of preemption, which is based on the Supremacy Clause, “a federal court may require a state to stop certain behavior it believes interferes with, or is in conflict with, federal law.” The district court held that Section 354.4 was not preempted, but that decision was appealed. Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Section 354.4 was in fact preempted under the Supremacy Clause and therefore unconstitutional.
Part of the Ninth Circuit’s argument for ruling that Section 354.4 was preempted, thus unconstitutional, was because this state law intruded on the exclusive powers of the federal government as it conflicted with the policies of the United States. At the time, US policy had been to avoid using the word “genocide” in connection to the 1915 crimes, so the Ninth Circuit interpreted Section 354.4 as disturbing foreign relations and establishing its own foreign policy. The specific intent of Section 354.4 was to ensure Armenian Genocide victims and their heirs would have a fair forum in which to resolve their claims, that being to collect unpaid insurance claims, but the Ninth Circuit ruled that this California law intruded on the federal government’s exclusive power to conduct and regulate foreign affairs, because it imposes the label “genocide” on the actions of the Ottoman Empire, a label which was not used by the United States at the time of this decision. The Ninth Circuit noted the significance of President Obama’s intentional avoidance of using the word “genocide” as proof of the United States policy not to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Now with the United States legislative branch, through the 2019 resolutions in the House and Senate, and the United States executive branch, through President Joe Biden’s 2021 statement, it can be argued that the official policy of the United States is that the events that took place between 1915 and 1923 in the Ottoman Empire was in fact genocide. Therefore, if a law similar to Section 354.4 were to be passed today, a court may rule that this is not preempted by the federal government because the law is no longer establishing its own foreign policy or disturbing foreign relations, because it is now in agreement with the United States’ legislative and executive branches.