Seizing Russian Assets
Vol. 17, Capital Markets Law Journal (2022)
13 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2022
Date Written: June 7, 2022
This article addresses the legal issues that the United States would confront were it to move from freezing to seizing. It looks first at the executive branch’s existing legal authority to confiscate foreign property. It considers legislative proposals to extend that authority. Both existing law and possible future legislation face constraints under constitutional law. These constraints are unique to the United States but reflect principles of legality and due process that western states generally embrace. Finally, it provides a snapshot of the international legal issues that seizure of Russian state assets might present.
First and foremost, existing law does not permit the executive branch to dispose of Russian state assets in advance of a settlement with that state. A civil process exists to forfeit assets to the state, including those of state-owned entities, but that entails resort to the courts and requires some evidence of criminality. Legislation currently under consideration in the United States would enhance that process but not abandon it. It would not apply to the largest portion of assets, the deposits of the Russian Central Bank in US financial institutions, absent some proof that those deposits can be traced to criminal activity. US constitutional guarantees against expropriation in the absence of compensation and of civil forfeiture in the absence of due process almost certainly apply.
Finally, the seizure of assets belonging to the Russian state outside of normal criminal and regulatory processes would violate international law. What international law probably would permit, however, is the use of these assets to satisfy legal judgments rendered against the Russian Federation by duly constituted international investment tribunals established under treaties to which Russia is a party. The United States and other countries in the West might explore ways of encouraging the beneficiaries of these awards, both present and future, to devote their recoveries to Ukrainian reconstruction.
Keywords: Sanctions, Russian invasion of Ukraine, administrative law, constitutional law, international law
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