DOWNTOWN — A California law allowing heirs of victims of the Armenian genocide to sue in state courts for unpaid insurance benefits was deemed unconstitutional last week by a federal appeals court, setting off a wave of local reaction.
A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday nullified the state law that allowed descendants of Armenian genocide victims killed by the Ottoman Empire to request payment on the life-insurance policies of relatives.
The panel said in its 2-1 decision that the law amounted to unconstitutional interfering in U.S. foreign policy. The same panel one day prior used similar reasoning to strike down a state law meant to aid the inheritors of artwork allegedly stolen by Nazis. Both of the laws extended the statute of limitations to file claims to Dec. 31, 2010.
Thursday’s decision was based on a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a state law designed to help Holocaust survivors collect on World War II-era insurance policies.
Three times Congress has considered resolutions in the last decade that would have provided recognition of the Armenian Genocide. But the White House each time urged that the bills be foiled, fearing that their passage would damage relations with Turkey, whose government denies that a genocide took place.
“Our position is it’s not just a stretch, it’s bordering on ludicrous,” said Brian S. Kabateck, a Los Angeles lawyer representing the plaintiffs, and whose maternal grandparents died in the genocide. “I think these judges — the two judges that ruled against us — saw it wrong.”
Prior Armenian genocide cases yielded significant agreements, including a 2004 settlement in which New York Life Insurance Co. agreed to pay $20 million and a 2005 settlement in which AXA S.A. agreed to pay $17 million.
Armenian descendants last year filed a class-action against Aviva PLC, a British firm, and another suit is pending against Deutsche Bank.
Glendale priest Vazken Movsesian of St. Peter Armenian Church — joined by the thousands of Armenians whose relatives were among the 1.5 million killed between 1915 and 1923 — filed their case six years ago. The group sought a settlement of claims under policies issued by German insurers Victoria Versicherung and Ergo Versicherungsgruppe, as well as parent company Münchener Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft AG.
The plaintiffs scored a partial victory two years ago when U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder said the law passed in 2000 by the California Legislature gave the descendants standing to sue.
The appellate court, however, reversed that decision.
“The federal government has made a conscious decision not to apply the politically charged label of ‘genocide’ to the deaths of these Armenians during World War I,” said Judge David R. Thompson, who wrote the majority opinion in Thursday’s rulings. “Whether or not California agrees with this decision, it may not contradict it.”
Neil Soltman, lawyer for one of the insurance companies, maintains the ruling was consistent with past decisions overturning state efforts to adopt legislation that interferes with the national government’s foreign policy.
Because the ruling does not apply retroactively, none of the California residents paid as part of earlier settlements must refund the money.
Genocide of Armenians during World War I has yet to be recognized by the federal government, despite recognition by 42 states. The Turkish government has made no official objection to any of the states’ resolutions.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who as an assemblyman co-wrote the overturned law, said he found the court’s reasoning perplexing. “It’s very, very peculiar logic,” he said. “I was very distressed to read the opinion, and I think it’s an awful result.” Kabateck, who indicated he would appeal, said there is no conflict between the state law and federal policy.
Local members of the Armenian community expressed dismay.
“The state has the right to reflect the will of its citizens, and in this case it has already reflected that with laws that were passed,” said Zanku Armenian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee Glendale chapter. “A crime was committed back in 1915. What we are trying to do is make sure that the U.S. government does not outsource its foreign policy to a foreign government, in this case, Turkey. The judges’ decisions in essence make the same mistake as the president and the State Department.”
The panel Thursday said the issue was defined by George W. Bush and Bill Clinton when they warned that recognizing the Armenian Genocide would damage U.S.-Turkey relations.
President Obama, who on the campaign trail said the nation deserves “a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide,” stopped short of using the term during a trip to Turkey in April and has not taken a position on the court case.
“Clearly there was political pressure brought on these judges to rule the way they did,” Armenian said. “If the U.S. says ‘enough,’ what’s going to happen? The Turkish denial machine would crumble; it would force them to start dealing with the truth.”