US Supreme Court justices appeared divided as they weighed an effort by Sudan, backed by the US government, to avoid paying $314.7 million (£239.5 million) in damages to American sailors injured in a 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole by the al Qaeda militant group.
The justices heard oral arguments in Sudan’s appeal of a 2015 lower court ruling allowing the sailors to collect the damages
The dispute centres on Sudan’s contention it was not properly notified of the lawsuit when the claims were delivered in 2010 to its embassy in Washington rather than its minister of foreign affairs in Khartoum, as required by US and international law.
The Trump administration agreed with Sudan, saying the case could impact how the US government is treated by foreign courts since the United States rejects judicial notices delivered to its embassies.
Some justices appeared sensitive to government’s arguments. Trump’s newest appointee to the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, suggested a lawyer for the sailors, Kannon Shanmugam, was downplaying the problem despite a major international treaty on diplomatic relations.
“The United States and the countries in the Vienna Convention all seem to say, actually, it is a big deal,” Kavanaugh said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, a liberal, said a suit might better reach the proper authorities if sent to a foreign ministry abroad.
Other members of the court appeared to back the sailors. Chief Justice John Roberts said it might be more “convenient” to receive a notice at an embassy.
The case follows the injury of 15 sailors in the October 12, 2000 attack, after which they and three spouses sued Sudan in 2010, accusing it of providing material support to help al Qaeda carry out the bombing. Sudan denies the allegation. The attack killed 17 sailors and wounded dozens in the southern Yemeni port Aden.
In 2012, a federal judge in Washington issued a default judgement of $314.7 million against Sudan, which did not appear in court to defend itself. A separate judge in New York later ordered certain banks to turn over assets they held for Sudan to partially satisfy the judgement.
The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld those orders in 2015, rejecting Sudan’s argument the lawsuit was not properly initiated according to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a US law governing when foreign governments may be sued in American courts.