updated 6/7/2004 11:28:07 AM ET 2004-06-07T15:28:07

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Americans can sue foreign governments over looted art, stolen property and war crimes dating to the 1930s, a victory for an elderly California woman trying to get back $150 million worth of paintings stolen by the Nazis more than 65 years ago.

Justices said that the governments are not protected from lawsuits in U.S. courts over old claims.

Maria Altmann, who fled Austria, had attended the Supreme Court argument and said justices were one of her last hopes for the return of six Gustav Klimt paintings, including two colorful, impressionistic portraits of her aunt.

She filed a lawsuit against the Austrian government in federal court in California, and won rulings that allowed her to pursue the case.

The justices agreed with her in a 6-3 ruling that emboldens victims of wartime atrocities to pursue lawsuits. Women who claim they were used as sex slaves during World War II have sued Japan, and Holocaust survivors and heirs have brought a case against the French national railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps. Those cases are pending at the Supreme Court.

Road map to the Supreme CourtJustice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that the State Department can still ask courts to dismiss such lawsuits.

But he said that suits are not barred by a 1976 law, or a 1952 U.S. government policy that shielded some countries from lawsuits while allowing suits against some foreign government commercial ventures.

Nazis had looted the possessions of Altmann’s wealthy Jewish family, including the prized paintings that now hang in the Austrian Gallery. She and her husband escaped to America after she had been detained and her husband imprisoned in labor camp.

In a dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas said the decision “injects great prospective uncertainty into our relations with foreign sovereigns.”

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Ruled unanimously that the Bush administration can skip a lengthy environmental study and open U.S. roadways to Mexican trucks as soon as it wishes. The high court ruled against labor and environmental organizations that have long fought expansion of Mexican trucking within the borders of the United States despite a guarantee this country made when it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement more than a decade ago.
  • Rejected an appeal by Colorado Republicans over whether a congressional map favorable to Democrats is permanent until after the next census in 2010. A fractured court refused to consider replacing that map with a GOP-drafted redistricting plan, a defeat for Republicans who have sought to reopen the boundary-drawing process in several states to protect their control of the House.
  • Refused to hear an appeal from a longtime Muslim leader in Chicago who was labeled a security risk and barred from re-entering the United States last year. Sabri Samirah, head of the United Muslim American Association, wanted the high court to allow him to return from his native Jordan, at least temporarily. Samirah is contesting U.S. authorities’ decision to turn him away as he attempted to return to the country after a visit to his ailing mother.
  • Agreed to consider whether people facing bankruptcy can prevent certain retirement savings from being used to pay their debts. Bankruptcy law protects payments from a person’s pensions and annuities, but does not mention Individual Retirement Accounts, which are at issue in a case involving an Arkansas couple. The case will be argued at the Supreme Court in the term which begins next fall.

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