SCOTUS Opinion: Foreign States Must Be Served On Home Soil With Process

To gain personal jurisdiction over a foreign sovereign under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, service of process must be accomplished, among other options, “by any form of mail requiring a signed receipt, to be addressed and dispatched . . . to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs of the foreign state concerned.” 28 U.S.C. sec. 1608(a)(3). In Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, victims of the bombing of the USS Cole sued Sudan, alleging it gave material support to al Qaeda for the bombing, and sent the service packet to Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the country’s embassy in the United States. Sudan failed to respond to the litigation, the district court entered default judgment, and eventually entered orders requiring banks to turn over Sudanese assets to pay the judgment. Sudan argued that there was no personal jurisdiction because service was not effectuated in Sudan. The Second Circuit disagreed with Sudan, but later on the Fourth Circuit came to a different conclusion in a separate case. The Court, resolving the split, held in an opinion by Justice Alito that the “most natural reading” was that process had to be served on the foreign minister’s office in the foreign state in order for the courts to have personal jurisdiction over the foreign sovereign. The Court compared service on an embassy to be like serving the Attorney General of the United States through one of the offices in the District of a state, or serving a CEO of a corporation by delivering process to one of its retail outlets. Justice Thomas, in a solo dissent, argued that the “unique role” played by embassies in maintaining state-to-state relationships permitted a foreign state to be served through its embassy under the Act.