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decided: March 23, 1964.



Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg

Author: Harlan

[ 376 U.S. Page 400]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question which brought this case here, and is now found to be the dispositive issue, is whether the so-called act of state doctrine serves to sustain petitioner's claims in this litigation. Such claims are ultimately founded on a decree of the Government of Cuba expropriating certain

[ 376 U.S. Page 401]

     property, the right to the proceeds of which is here in controversy. The act of state doctrine in its traditional formulation precludes the courts of this country from inquiring into the validity of the public acts a recognized foreign sovereign power committed within its own territory.


In February and July of 1960, respondent Farr, Whitlock & Co., an American commodity broker, contracted to purchase Cuban sugar, free alongside the steamer, from a wholly owned subsidiary of Compania Azucarera Vertientes-Camaguey de Cuba (C. A. V.), a corporation organized under Cuban law whose capital stock was owned principally by United States residents. Farr, Whitlock agreed to pay for the sugar in New York upon presentation of the shipping documents and a sight draft.

On July 6, 1960, the Congress of the United States amended the Sugar Act of 1948 to permit a presidentially directed reduction of the sugar quota for Cuba.*fn1 On the same day President Eisenhower exercised the granted power.*fn2 The day of the congressional enactment, the Cuban Council of Ministers adopted "Law No. 851," which characterized this reduction in the Cuban sugar quota as an act of "aggression, for political purposes" on the part of the United States, justifying the taking of countermeasures by Cuba. The law gave the Cuban President and Prime Minister discretionary power to nationalize by forced expropriation property or enterprises in which American nationals had an interest.*fn3 Although

[ 376 U.S. Page 402]

     a system of compensation was formally provided, the possibility of payment under it may well be deemed illusory.*fn4 Our State Department has described the Cuban law as "manifestly in violation of those principles

[ 376 U.S. Page 403]

     of international law which have long been accepted by the free countries of the West. It is in its essence discriminatory, arbitrary and confiscatory."*fn5

Between August 6 and August 9, 1960, the sugar covered by the contract between Farr, Whitlock and C. A. V.*fn6 was loaded, destined for Morocco, onto the S. S. Hornfels, which was standing offshore at the Cuban port of Jucaro (Santa Maria). On the day loading commenced, the Cuban President and Prime Minister, acting pursuant to Law No. 851, issued Executive Power Resolution No. 1. It provided for the compulsory expropriation of all property and enterprises, and of rights and interests arising therefrom, of certain listed companies, including C. A. V., wholly or principally owned by American nationals. The preamble reiterated the alleged injustice of the American reduction of the Cuban sugar quota and emphasized the importance of Cuba's serving as an example for other countries to follow "in their struggle to free themselves from the brutal claws of Imperialism."*fn7 In consequence

[ 376 U.S. Page 404]

     of the resolution, the consent of the Cuban Government was necessary before a ship carrying sugar of a named company could leave Cuban waters. In order to obtain this consent, Farr, Whitlock, on August 11, entered into contracts, identical to those it had made with C. A. V.,

[ 376 U.S. Page 405]

     with the Banco Para el Comercio Exterior de Cuba, an instrumentality of the Cuban Government. The S. S. Hornfels sailed for Morocco on August 12.

Banco Exterior assigned the bills of lading to petitioner, also an instrumentality of the Cuban Government, which instructed its agent in New York, Societe Generale, to deliver the bills and a sight draft in the sum of $175,250.69 to Farr, Whitlock in return for payment. Societe Generale's initial tender of the documents was refused by Farr, Whitlock, which on the same day was notified of C. A. V.'s claim that as rightful owner of the sugar it was entitled to the proceeds. In return for a promise not to turn the funds over to petitioner or its agent, C. A. V. agreed to indemnify Farr, Whitlock for any loss.*fn8 Farr, Whitlock subsequently accepted the shipping documents, negotiated the bills of lading to its customer, and

[ 376 U.S. Page 406]

     received payment for the sugar. It refused, however, to hand over the proceeds to Societe Generale. Shortly thereafter, Farr, Whitlock was served with an order of the New York Supreme Court, which had appointed Sabbatino as Temporary Receiver of C. A. V.'s New York assets, enjoining it from taking any action in regard to the money claimed by C. A. V. that might result in its removal from the State. Following this, Farr, Whitlock, pursuant to court order, transferred the funds to Sabbatino, to abide the event of a judicial determination as to their ownership.

Petitioner then instituted this action in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Alleging conversion of the bills of lading, it sought to recover the proceeds thereof from Farr, Whitlock and to enjoin the receiver from exercising any dominion over such proceeds. Upon motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, the District Court, 193 F.Supp. 375, sustained federal in personam jurisdiction despite state control of the funds. It found that the sugar was located within Cuban territory at the time of expropriation and determined that under merchant law common to civilized countries Farr, Whitlock could not have asserted ownership of the sugar against C. A. V. before making payment. It concluded that C. A. V. had a property interest in the sugar subject to the territorial jurisdiction of Cuba. The court then dealt with the question of Cuba's title to the sugar, on which rested petitioner's claim of conversion. While acknowledging the continuing vitality of the act of state doctrine, the court believed it inapplicable when the questioned foreign act is in violation of international law. Proceeding on the basis that a taking invalid under international law does not convey good title, the District Court found the Cuban expropriation decree to violate such law in three

[ 376 U.S. Page 407]

     separate respects: it was motivated by a retaliatory and not a public purpose; it discriminated against American nationals; and it failed to provide adequate compensation. Summary judgment against petitioner was accordingly granted.

The Court of Appeals, 307 F.2d 845, affirming the decision on similar grounds, relied on two letters (not before the District Court) written by State Department officers which it took as evidence that the Executive Branch had no objection to a judicial testing of the Cuban decree's validity. The court was unwilling to declare that any one of the infirmities found by the District Court rendered the taking invalid under international law, but was satisfied that in combination they had that effect. We granted certiorari because the issues involved bear importantly on the conduct of the country's foreign relations and more particularly on the proper role of the Judicial Branch in this sensitive area. 372 U.S. 905. For reasons to follow we decide that the judgment below must be reversed.

Subsequent to the decision of the Court of Appeals, the C. A. V. receivership was terminated by the State Supreme Court; the funds in question were placed in escrow, pending the outcome of this suit. C. A. V. has moved in this Court to be substituted as a party in the place of Sabbatino. Although it is true that Sabbatino's defensive interest in this litigation has largely, if not entirely, reflected that of C. A. V., this is true also of Farr, Whitlock's position. There is no indication that Farr, Whitlock has not adequately represented C. A. V.'s interest or that it will not continue to do so. Moreover, insofar as disposition of the case here is concerned, C. A. V. has been permitted as amicus to brief and argue its position before this Court. In these circumstances we are not persuaded that the admission of C. A. V. as a party is

[ 376 U.S. Page 408]

     necessary at this stage to safeguard any claim either that it has already presented or that it may present in the future course of this litigation. Accordingly, we are constrained to deny C. A. V.'s motion to be admitted as a party,*fn9 without prejudice however to the renewal of such a motion in the lower courts if it appears that C. A. V.'s interests are not adequately represented by Farr, Whitlock and that the granting of such a motion will not disturb federal jurisdiction. Cf. Strawbridge v. Curtiss, 3 Cranch 267; Indianapolis v. Chase Nat'l Bank, 314 U.S. 63, at 69; Ex parte Edelstein, 30 F.2d 636, at 638.

Before considering the holding below with respect to the act of state doctrine, we must deal with narrower grounds urged for dismissal of the action or for a judgment on the merits in favor of respondents.


It is first contended that this petitioner, an instrumentality of the Cuban Government, should be denied access to American courts because Cuba is an unfriendly power and does not permit nationals of this country to obtain relief in its courts. Even though the respondents did not raise this point in the lower courts we think it should be considered here. If the courts of this country should be closed to the government of a foreign state, the underlying reason is one of national policy transcending the interests of the parties to the action, and this Court should give effect to that policy sua sponte even at this stage of the litigation.

Under principles of comity governing this country's relations with other nations, sovereign states are allowed

[ 376 U.S. Page 409]

     to sue in the courts of the United States, The Sapphire, 11 Wall. 164, 167; Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 134. This Court has called "comity" in the legal sense "neither a matter of absolute obligation, on the one hand, nor of mere courtesy and good will, upon the other." Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 163-164. Although comity is often associated with the existence of friendly relations between states, e. g., Bank of Augusta v. Earle, 13 Pet. 519, 589; Russian Republic v. Cibrario, 235 N. Y. 255, 258, 139 N. E. 259, 260, prior to some recent lower court cases which have questioned the right of instrumentalities of the Cuban Government to sue in our courts,*fn10 the privilege of suit has been denied only to governments at war with the United States, Ex parte Don Ascanio Colonna, 314 U.S. 510; see § 7 of the Trading with the Enemy Act, 40 Stat. 416, 417, 50 U. S. C. App. § 7; cf. Hanger v. Abbott, 6 Wall. 532; Caperton v. Bowyer, 14 Wall. 216, 236, or to those not recognized by this country, The Penza, 277 F. 91; Russian Republic v. Cibrario, supra.*fn11

[ 376 U.S. Page 410]

     Respondents, pointing to the severance of diplomatic relations, commercial embargo, and freezing of Cuban assets in this country, contend that relations between the United States and Cuba manifest such animosity that unfriendliness is clear, and that the courts should be closed to the Cuban Government. We do not agree. This Court would hardly be competent to undertake assessments of varying degrees of friendliness or its absence, and, lacking some definite touchstone for determination, we are constrained to consider any relationship, short of war, with a recognized sovereign power as embracing the privilege of resorting to United States courts. Although the severance of diplomatic relations is an overt act with objective significance in the dealings of sovereign states, we are unwilling to say that it should inevitably result in the withdrawal of the privilege of bringing suit. Severance may take place for any number of political reasons, its duration is unpredictable, and whatever expression of animosity it may imply does not approach that implicit in a declaration of war.

It is perhaps true that non-recognition of a government in certain circumstances may reflect no greater unfriendliness than the severance of diplomatic relations with a recognized government, but the refusal to recognize has a unique legal aspect. It signifies this country's unwillingness to acknowledge that the government in question speaks as the sovereign authority for the territory it purports to control, see Russian Republic v. Cibrario, supra, at 260-263, 139 N. E., at 261-263. Political recognition is exclusively a function of the Executive. The possible incongruity of judicial "recognition," by permitting suit, of a government not recognized by the Executive is completely

[ 376 U.S. Page 411]

     absent when merely diplomatic relations are broken.*fn12

The view that the existing situation between the United States and Cuba should not lead to a denial of status to sue is buttressed by the circumstance that none of the acts of our Government have been aimed at closing the courts of this country to Cuba, and more particularly by the fact that the Government has come to the support of Cuba's "act of state" claim in this very litigation.

Respondents further urge that reciprocity of treatment is an essential ingredient of comity generally, and, therefore, of the privilege of foreign states to bring suit here. Although Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, contains some broad language about the relationship of reciprocity to comity, the case in fact imposed a requirement of reciprocity only in regard to conclusiveness of judgments, and even then only in limited circumstances. Id., at 170-171. In Direction der Disconto-Gesellschaft v. United States Steel Corp., 300 F. 741, 747 (D.C. S. D. N. Y.), Judge Learned Hand pointed out that the doctrine of reciprocity has apparently been confined to foreign judgments.

[ 376 U.S. Page 412]

     There are good reasons for declining to extend the principle to the question of standing of sovereign states to sue. Whether a foreign sovereign will be permitted to sue involves a problem more sensitive politically than whether the judgments of its courts may be re-examined, and the possibility of embarrassment to the Executive Branch in handling foreign relations is substantially more acute. Re-examination of judgments, in principle, reduces rather than enhances the possibility of injustice being done in a particular case; refusal to allow suit makes it impossible for a court to see that a particular dispute is fairly resolved. The freezing of Cuban assets exemplifies the capacity of the political branches to assure, through a variety of techniques (see infra, pp. 431, 435-436), that the national interest is protected against a country which is thought to be improperly denying the rights of United States citizens.

Furthermore, the question whether a country gives res judicata effect to United States judgments presents a relatively simple inquiry. The precise status of the United States Government and its nationals before foreign courts is much more difficult to determine. To make such an investigation significant, a court would have to discover not only what is provided by the formal structure of the foreign judicial system, but also what the practical possibilities of fair treatment are. The courts, whose powers to further the national interest in foreign affairs are necessarily circumscribed as compared with those of the political branches, can best serve the rule of law by not excluding otherwise proper suitors because of deficiencies in their legal systems.

We hold that this petitioner is not barred from access to the federal courts.*fn13

[ 376 U.S. Page 413]


Respondents claimed in the lower courts that Cuba had expropriated merely contractual rights the situs of which was in New York, and that the propriety of the taking was, therefore, governed by New York law. The District Court rejected this contention on the basis of the right of ownership possessed by C. A. V. against Farr, Whitlock prior to payment for the sugar. That the sugar itself was expropriated rather than a contractual claim is further supported by Cuba's refusal to let the S. S. Hornfels sail until a new contract had been signed. Had the Cuban decree represented only an attempt to expropriate a contractual right of C. A. V., the forced delay of shipment and Farr, Whitlock's subsequent contract with petitioner's assignor would have been meaningless.*fn14 Neither the District Court's finding concerning the location of the S. S. Hornfels nor its conclusion that Cuba had territorial jurisdiction to expropriate the sugar, acquiesced in by the Court of Appeals, is seriously challenged here. Respondents' limited view of the expropriation must be rejected.

Respondents further contend that if the expropriation was of the sugar itself, this suit then becomes one to enforce the public law of a foreign state and as such is not cognizable in the courts of this country. They rely on the principle enunciated in federal and state cases that a

[ 376 U.S. Page 414]

     court need not give effect to the penal or revenue laws of foreign countries or sister states. See, e. g., The Antelope, 10 Wheat. 66, 123; Wisconsin v. Pelican Ins. Co., 127 U.S. 265; Huntington v. Attrill, 146 U.S. 657 (all relating to penal laws);*fn15 Moore v. Mitchell, 30 F.2d 600, aff'd on other grounds, 281 U.S. 18; City of Detroit v. Proctor, 44 Del. 193, 61 A. 2d 412; City of Philadelphia v. Cohen, 11 N. Y. 2d 401, 184 N. E. 2d 167, 230 N. Y. S. 2d 188 (all relating to revenue laws).

The extent to which this doctrine may apply to other kinds of public laws, though perhaps still an open question,*fn16 need not be decided in this case. For we have been referred to no authority which suggests that the doctrine reaches a public law which, as here, has been fully executed within the foreign state. Cuba's restraint of the S. S. Hornfels must be regarded for these purposes to have constituted an effective taking of the sugar, vesting in Cuba C. A. V.'s property right in it. Farr, Whitlock's

[ 376 U.S. Page 415]

     contract with the Cuban bank, however compelled to sign Farr, Whitlock may have felt, represented indeed a recognition of Cuba's dominion over the property.

In these circumstances the question whether the rights acquired by Cuba are enforceable in our courts depends not upon the doctrine here invoked but upon the act of state doctrine discussed in the succeeding sections of this opinion.*fn17

[ 376 U.S. Page 416]


The classic American statement of the act of state doctrine, which appears to have taken root in England as early as 1674, Blad v. Bamfield, 3 Swans. 604, 36 Eng. Rep. 992, and began to emerge in the jurisprudence of this country in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see, e. g., Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. 199, 230; Hudson v. Guestier, 4 Cranch 293, 294; The Schooner Exchange v. M'Faddon, 7 Cranch 116, 135, 136; L'Invincible, 1 Wheat. 238, 253; The Santissima Trinidad, 7 Wheat. 283, 336, is found in Underhill v. Hernandez, 168 U.S. 250, where Chief Justice Fuller said for a unanimous Court (p. 252):

"Every sovereign State is bound to respect the independence of every other sovereign State, and the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another done within its own territory. Redress of grievances by reason of such acts must be obtained through the means open to be availed of by sovereign powers as between themselves."

Following this precept the Court in that case refused to inquire into acts of Hernandez, a revolutionary Venezuelan military commander whose government had been later recognized by the United States, which were made the basis of a damage action in this country by Underhill, an American citizen, who claimed that he had been unlawfully assaulted, coerced, and detained in Venezuela by Hernandez.

None of this Court's subsequent cases in which the act of state doctrine was directly or peripherally involved manifest any retreat from Underhill. See American Banana Co. v. United Fruit Co., 213 U.S. 347; Oetjen v. Central Leather Co., 246 U.S. 297; Ricaud v. American Metal Co., 246 U.S. 304; Shapleigh v. Mier, 299 U.S. 468;

[ 376 U.S. Page 417]

     the courts of another would very certainly 'imperil the amicable relations between governments and vex the peace of nations.'" Id., at 303-304.

In Ricaud the facts were similar -- another general of the Carranza forces seized lead bullion as a military levy -- except that the property taken belonged to an American citizen. The Court found Underhill, American Banana, and Oetjen controlling. Commenting on the nature of the principle established by those cases, the opinion stated that the rule

"does not deprive the courts of jurisdiction once acquired over a case. It requires only that, when it is made to appear that the foreign government has acted in a given way on the subject-matter of the litigation, the details of such action or the merit of the result cannot be questioned but must be accepted by our courts as a rule for their decision. To accept a ruling authority and to decide accordingly is not a surrender or abandonment of jurisdiction but is an exercise of it. It results that the title to the property in this case must be determined by the result of the action taken by the military authorities of Mexico . . . ." 246 U.S., at 309.

To the same effect is the language of Mr. Justice Cardozo in the Shapleigh case, supra, where, in commenting on the validity of a Mexican land expropriation, he said (299 U.S., at 471): "The question is not here whether the proceeding was so conducted as to be a wrong to our nationals under the doctrines of international law, though valid under the law of the situs of the land. For wrongs of that order the remedy to be followed is along the channels of diplomacy."

In deciding the present case the Court of Appeals relied in part upon an exception to the unqualified teachings

[ 376 U.S. Page 419]

     of Underhill, Oetjen, and Ricaud which that court had earlier indicated. In Bernstein v. Van Heyghen Freres Societe Anonyme, 163 F.2d 246, suit was brought to recover from an assignee property allegedly taken, in effect, by the Nazi Government because plaintiff was Jewish. Recognizing the odious nature of this act of state, the court, through Judge Learned Hand, nonetheless refused to consider it invalid on that ground. Rather, it looked to see if the Executive had acted in any manner that would indicate that United States Courts should refuse to give effect to such a foreign decree. Finding no such evidence, the court sustained dismissal of the complaint. In a later case involving similar facts the same court again assumed examination of the German acts improper, Bernstein v. N. V. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart-Maatschappij, 173 F.2d 71, but, quite evidently following the implications of Judge Hand's opinion in the earlier case, amended its mandate to permit evidence of alleged invalidity, 210 F.2d 375, subsequent to receipt by plaintiff's attorney of a letter from the Acting Legal Adviser to the State Department written for the purpose of relieving the court from any constraint upon the exercise of its jurisdiction to pass on that question.*fn18

[ 376 U.S. Page 420]

     This Court has never had occasion to pass upon the so-called Bernstein exception, nor need it do so now. For whatever ambiguity may be thought to exist in the two letters from State Department officials on which the Court of Appeals relied,*fn19 307 F.2d, at 858, is now removed by the position which the Executive has taken in this Court on the act of state claim; respondents do not indeed contest the view that these letters ...

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