Foreign Dictators in U.S. Court
69 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2020 Last revised: 9 Apr 2021
Date Written: February 1, 2021
It’s almost impossible to sue a foreign government in U.S. courts. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the court-created “act of state” doctrine, and other common law immunities shield foreign officials and governments from most lawsuits. For instance, courts have dismissed claims against China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia over allegations of torture, detentions, and election interference. Yet, foreign governments have unfettered access to U.S. courts as plaintiffs. And foreign dictatorships, including Russia, China, Turkey, and Venezuela, have leveraged this access to harass political dissidents, critics, and even newspapers in the United States. These doctrines create an asymmetry at the heart of this Article: foreign dictators and their proxies can access our courts as plaintiffs to harass their opponents, but their regimes are, in turn, immune from lawsuits here.
This Article exposes this asymmetry and argues that U.S. courts and Congress should make it harder for foreign dictators to abuse our legal system. The Article offers three novel contributions. First, the Article provides the first systematic assessment of foreign dictatorships in U.S. court. While much of the literature is siloed by substantive area of law—focusing on contexts like human rights or property expropriations—this Article treats dictators as a trans-substantive category of litigants, worthy of special analysis. Second, the Article exposes how foreign dictators are increasingly taking advantage of U.S. courts and comity doctrines, especially as plaintiffs. In a misguided effort to promote harmonious foreign relations, courts have provided foreign dictators an array of protections and privileges that dictators are eagerly exploiting. Finally, the Article demonstrates that there is no historical, constitutional, or statutory obligation on U.S. courts to give foreign dictators these legal protections and unfettered access to our courts. Because of that, I offer four concrete proposals to both stymy dictators’ access to U.S. court as plaintiffs—through a proposed foreign sovereign anti-SLAPP statute—and weaken the protections that dictators enjoy as defendants. Simply stated, U.S. courts should not be instruments of foreign authoritarian oppression.
Keywords: Civil Procedure, Transnational Litigation, Authoritarian International Law, Private International Law, Federal Courts
JEL Classification: K4
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation