Court Bars Return of Cash, Art to Marcos
A federal appeals court on Monday refused to order the U.S. Customs Service to return the jewelry, art and cash it seized from ousted Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos when he arrived in Hawaii four months ago.
The ruling--a stay of a lower-court order--was a victory for the U.S. government, which has sought to hold the property while the new Philippine government of Corazon Aquino battles Marcos for permanent possession in court.
The action by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a June 6 order by a federal judge in Hawaii, which had directed the Customs Service to return the property immediately.
The State Department had asked the appeals court to block the June 6 order, maintaining that U.S. relations with the Aquino government would be severely damaged if customs officials were forced to give the property back to Marcos.
The property will remain in U.S. custody at least until the appellate court can hear arguments on who should hold it while the ownership dispute is resolved. The appellate court said it will make that decision quickly and told lawyers for Marcos and the U.S. government to be ready to argue the case by September.
The unusual case began when customs officers discovered that Marcos and his wife, Imelda, and their entourage of 89 people brought 22 boxes filled with $1.2 million worth of Philippine pesos, plus art, jewelry and personal papers when they arrived at Hickam Air Force Base last Feb. 26.
The Aquino government, estimating that the cash and goods were worth $7.7 million, called for the return of the property, maintaining that it had been stolen from the Philippine people during Marcos’ 20-year rule.
Customs officials decided to keep the property while the Aquino government and Marcos fought in court over the ownership.
U.S. District Judge Harold Fong of Honolulu, acting in a suit by Marcos, ordered the Customs Service to return the property, saying the government had no authority to make such a seizure and had never made one like it before.
In placing Fong’s order on hold, the appeals court said the “balance of hardships in this case strongly favors the granting of a stay pending appeal: If a stay is granted, the status quo will be maintained and there will be no danger of dissipation of the assets.”
Circuit Judges M. Oliver Koelsch, Warren J. Ferguson and Stephen Reinhardt signed the order.
Marcos’ representatives had argued that Marcos needed the property to pay his bills. He is without personal funds and must subsist on donations from supporters, his lawyers said in a written argument to the court.
Marcos’ attorneys also singled out a piece of art, a religious figure, saying it had been loaned to Imelda by a Philippine religious sect last year and had to be returned to the sect this month to complete a rite.
Justice Department attorneys warned, however, that Marcos might sell the jewelry and art if they were returned and noted, “The harm to our foreign relations would be irreparable, since the status quo could never be restored.”
Michael H. Armacost, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, stepped into the case, noting in a written statement to the court that U.S. authorities promised Aquino that the Customs Service would keep the property until the ownership dispute was resolved.
“I believe that a U.S. failure to fulfill those assurances to the government of the Philippines would adversely affect our bilateral relations,” Armacost said. “It is my strong view that the favorable development of those relations is vital to the foreign policy of the United States.”