Translating an International FSIA Case in the Highest Court in the U.S.

Republic of Sudan v. Harrison and the Question of Service

We’ve blogged about legal translation services to comply with the Hague Convention requirements.  In law school, all soon-to-be lawyers learn about ensuring that a litigant is properly served with a legal complaint. Yet, law students typically think of service as an afterthought, as a rather pedestrian necessity that is less important than the great noble concepts discussed in Constitutional Law class. However, service can make or break a case.

Not only does service of process deal with issues such as subject-matter and personal jurisdiction, but a plaintiff seeking justice will not be able to obtain relief unless defendants are aware that there is a lawsuit pending against them. In fact, matters of service of process sometimes make it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, such as in the case of Republic of Sudan v. Harrison.

The case of Republic of Sudan v. Harrison is the topic of today’s blog because it reflects a number of important legal issues in international law. First, the case clarifies what is proper service of a foreign nation under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. Second, the circumstances of the case involve the horrible terrorist attack on the USS Cole back in October 2000. Third, it reminds us of the requirements of serving process in a foreign country. Fourth, and finally, the case is another demonstration of how important legal translation services are to the practice of law.

In this blog, we will first discuss the facts and holding of Republic of Sudan v. Harrison. Then, we will talk about how legal translation services are able to make a case like Republic of Sudan v. Harrison happen in the first place. If you want to learn more about obtaining quality legal translation services for your firm, we welcome you to call us at All Language Alliance, Inc. at 303-470-9555.

A. Republic of Sudan v. Harrison – It All Starts with Proper Service

Facts – Service on the Sudanese Embassy in the U.S.

In October 2000, the United States got pre-9-11 taste of terrorism coming close to American shores when al Qaeda terrorists brought a small boat alongside a United States Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Cole, and detonated explosives that tore a hole in the side of the Cole. Seventeen crewmembers were killed, and dozens more were injured.

Victims of the bombing and their family members sought to sue the Republic of Sudan for the attack, alleging that the Republic of Sudan had provided material support to al Qaeda in connection with the bombing.

Given that their lawsuit was under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), the victims needed to serve the Republic of Sudan with process under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a). That statute provides four ways in which to complete service of process, one of which is “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.”

Accordingly, the victims asked the court clerk (in the District Court in which they filed their lawsuit) to address the service of process packet to the Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Sudanese Embassy in the United States. The victims later certified that a signed receipt of the papers had been returned.

Representatives of the Republic of Sudan, however, never appeared in court. So, the District Court issued a default judgment against Sudan, and later ordered certain banks to turn over Sudanese assets to the victims. The Republic of Sudan challenged the orders, arguing that service under § 1608(a) was improper, specifically stating that the service of process should have gone to the foreign minister’s office in Sudan, not to the Sudanese Embassy in the U.S. On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling.

The United States Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the Second Circuit.

• The Court’s Holding – FSIA Service Needs to be in the Foreign State

Eight justices on the Supreme Court relied on a plain language reading of § 1608(a) to find that a person’s “address” is his or her place of business. Thus, because the Sudanese Embassy is not the foreign minister’s “place of business,” but in the Republic of Sudan itself, the Court found that the default judgment must be reversed. The Court was clear that even if something served on the Sudanese Embassy was arguably calculated to give Sudan proper notice of the lawsuit, Congress could have included such a provision in § 1608(a), and it did not.

The lone dissenter, Justice Thomas, maintained that § 1608(a) only requires that service goes to a particular person – “the head of the ministry of foreign affairs” – so the service to the embassy should have been sufficient.

B. Legal Translation to Get a Case to the U.S. Supreme Court

In any case, particularly a case with international ramifications like Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, there are many different types of documents involved in the litigation, such as pleadings and court documents, audio recordings from legal proceedings, affidavits, evidentiary documents and financial statements, to name a few. With a case like Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, all those documents must be translated accurately. In particular, when a case reaches as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, those documents need to be letter perfect.

A seasoned legal translator must be able to understand the nature of the document and understand any particular legal or technical terms, and then translate the document (or recording) accurately and in a way that will convey the correct message and intent to the reader from a different culture.

All Language Alliance, Inc. is the reliable service you need to get accurate, professional translations for your litigation documents. We pride ourselves on getting it right the first time. Call us at 303-470-9555 for more information on obtaining certified English translations of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Portuguese, Norwegian and other foreign language documents for the FSIA cases and legal translation into Simplified Chinese for the U.S. class action lawsuits against China over coronavirus. In addition, we supply remote deposition interpreters for virtual depositions and in-person deposition interpreters in all languages for live depositions in U.S. litigation anywhere in the world.

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