汤姆·兹瓦特 亚历山大·诺普斯:谈美国密苏里州VS中国的新冠肺炎法律诉讼 - 第一单元:人权价值观与抗击新冠疫情 - 中国人权网

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汤姆·兹瓦特 亚历山大·诺普斯:谈美国密苏里州VS中国的新冠肺炎法律诉讼

2020-06-01 15:43:46来源:中国人权网

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荷兰阿姆斯特丹自由大学跨文化人权研究中心主任、乌得勒支大学教授汤姆·兹瓦特先生(网络会议视频截图)

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阿姆斯特丹大学亚历山大·诺普斯教授(网络会议视频截图)

  2020年5月30日下午,由中国人权研究会指导、华中科技大学人权法律研究院主办的“疫情防控中的中西方人权观比较”国际视频研讨会召开。会议采取现场和网络相结合的形式,来自联合国人权高专办、联合国人权高专办驻几内亚办事处、奥地利、荷兰、英国、巴基斯坦、尼泊尔和中国等国家和地区的40余名人权专家、官员参加了线上研讨。荷兰阿姆斯特丹自由大学跨文化人权研究中心主任、乌得勒支大学汤姆·兹瓦特教授和阿姆斯特丹大学亚历山大·诺普斯教授在”第一单元:人权价值观与抗击新冠疫情“上作题为《谈美国密苏里州VS中国的新冠肺炎法律诉讼》的联合发言。
 
 
谈美国密苏里州VS中国的新冠肺炎法律诉讼
 
亚历山大·诺普斯,阿姆斯特丹大学国际法政治学教授。

汤姆·兹瓦特,乌得勒支大学跨文化法教授,阿姆斯特丹自由大学跨文化人权中心主任

  1.引言

  4月21日,美国密苏里州总检察长埃里克·施密特(Eric Schmitt)在联邦地区法院对中华人民共和国及其一些实体,如国家卫生委员会、中国科学院以及湖北和武汉地方政府提起诉讼。 在一份长达47页的诉状的帮助下,施密特总检察长正在为密苏里人经历的冠状病毒造成的生命损失、人类痛苦和经济动荡寻求赔偿。根据施密特总检察长的说法,新冠大流行是由于中国当局没有采取行动。密西西比州后来也加入了密苏里州的诉讼,这是美国针对中国提起的几起此类案件之一,其中包括集体诉讼。

  本文分四个部分进行论述。在第二节中,将对密苏里州提出的论点进行分析,并对其成功前景进行评估。第三节将解释为什么将此案纳入过去20年来美国联邦关系中出现的模式。第四节提出了一些结论性意见,其中就中国如何处理此类案件提出了一些建议。

  2.密苏里州有没有值得商榷的理由?

  2.1地位

  根据美国联邦法律,索赔人需要通过三管齐下的测试才能拥有地位 :

  1)她或他必须遭受了“事实上的伤害”,即侵犯了受法律保护的利益。这种入侵必须是具体的和特殊的,必须是真实的或迫在眉睫的,而不是臆测或假想的。

  2)伤害和被投诉的行为之间必须有因果关系。这意味着伤害必须相当可追溯到被告被质疑的行动,而不应该是某个第三方的独立行动的结果,而不是在法庭上。

  3)与仅仅是推测相反的是,损害必须有可能通过法院有利的判决而得到补救。
因此,美国的常备法接近私人利益模式,该模式将对身体、财产或声誉的损害视为地位的先决条件。总体而言,法院将那些不能声称对选举结果有个人利益的人拒之门外。

  在手头的情况下,密苏里州将很难满足第二个要求。国家声称损害事实上是健康、生命、经济和人际关系损失的代价,但它未能证明所谓的损害与被投诉的行为之间存在因果关系。

  乍一看,该州可能能够通过依赖马萨诸塞州最高法院诉美国环保署一案中提出的一个概念来规避这一常备要求,在该案中,一些州总检察长对联邦环境保护局拒绝将二氧化碳和其他温室气体作为污染物进行监管提出了质疑。 以史蒂文斯法官为首的最高法院多数派指出,当一个州加入工会时,它就放弃了某些主权特权。尽管他们已经将这些权力下放给了工会,但各州在行使这些权力的方式上仍然保留着剩余的利益。这种“特殊关怀”为他们提供了发起诉讼程序以保护这些准主权利益的地位。 这种特殊的关怀立场似乎胜过了法院在“普通”立场案件中采用的三管齐下的测试。

  然而,这一特殊的长期关注原则并不是法院判例法中根深蒂固的一部分。首先,马萨诸塞州诉美国环保署的判决是一个5比4的狭隘判决,伴随着首席大法官罗伯茨提交的强烈反对意见,其中“特别关怀”的概念受到了占少数的大法官的严厉批评。因此,在这一概念被视为凝视决策的一部分之前,需要在随后的案例中得到确认。

  2014年由大量司法部长提起的美国诉德克萨斯案似乎非常适合这一目的。司法部长对奥巴马政府采取的行政行动提出了质疑,这些行政行动将驱逐无犯罪记录的非法外国人作为驱逐的最低优先事项,并给予作为美国公民父母的非法移民更安全的地位。美国第五巡回上诉法院裁定,奥巴马总统发布的命令违反了“行政诉讼法”的规则制定要求。 法院发现,总检察长在特殊关怀测试的基础上有资格。然而,备受期待的最高法院判决并没有带来预期的清晰度。 由于斯卡利亚大法官意外去世,此案不得不由剩下的八名大法官裁决,他们以4比4的比例平分。因此,上诉庭的判决维持不变,但这一判决没有任何先例价值。

  即使密苏里州有权在涉及联邦主义甚至国家问题的案件中受到特别关注,它是否也能在国际事务中声称具有准主权利益,这是非常值得怀疑的,因为外交主义和政治问题主义等概念往往会限制各州干预国家政府外交特权的能力。

  2.2政治问题主义

  由于这一申诉显然干扰了美国的对华外交政策,而美国对华外交政策目前相当于涉及高度敏感的贸易谈判的平衡行为,因此它必然会被宣布为一个不可诉诸法院的政治问题。马布里诉麦迪逊案通常被认为是不可审判性原则的摇篮。在他看来,首席大法官马歇尔对基于法律赋予的职责的决定和自由裁量决定进行了区分。 前者适合由法院裁决,而后者应由政治部门决定。

  在布伦南大法官在Baker诉Carr一案中的多数意见中,自由裁量权/非自由裁量权的区分被分为六类。 根据大法官布伦南的说法,在以下情况下,问题是不可诉诸法院的:

  ·该问题向一个协调的政治部门作出的文字上可证明的宪法承诺;

  ·缺乏司法上可发现和可管理的解决标准;

  ·如果没有一种明显不是由法官作出的初步政策决定,就不可能对问题作出决定;

  ·裁决将导致不尊重其中一个协调分支的事实;

  ·需要毫无疑问地坚持已经作出的政治决定;

  ·以及多个部门就同一问题发表声明可能会带来的尴尬。

  根据大法官布伦南的说法,外交问题往往被政治问题主义所涵盖,原因有三:它们经常开启无视司法适用的标准;它们可能涉及行使明显致力于行政或立法机构的自由裁量权;或者它们独特地要求以单一声音表达政府的观点。由于这些原因,最高法院很可能会驳回密苏里州的申诉,因为它是不可诉诸法院的。

  2.3豁免权

  2.3.1“外国政府豁免法”和国际公法规定的豁免权

  根据美国“外国政府豁免法”和国际公法,外国和中国一样在美国法院享有主权豁免权。施密特检察长试图绕过这一障碍,将中国共产党列为被告,同时声称“共产党不是中华人民共和国的机关或政治区,也不属于中华人民共和国或中华人民共和国的政治区,因此不受主权豁免的保护”。

  这一立场违反了国际法,根据国际法,国家豁免权延伸到国家的所有机关、组成部分和实体,当然也包括共产党。此外,共产党总书记还担任国家元首,按照定义,国家元首享有国家豁免权的保护。密苏里州控诉中受到质疑的行为都直接或间接地归因于中国国家主席。

  2.3.2商业活动例外。

  此外,诉状援引了“外国主权豁免法”第28篇第1605(A)(2)节规定的主权豁免的商业活动例外,声称据称造成大流行的行为是商业性质的。据称,这些商业活动包括运营中国医疗体系;武汉研究所和中国科学院对病毒进行商业研究;运营传统和社交媒体平台以获取商业利益;以及生产、购买和进出口医疗设备。

  起诉书没有确定哪些实体所从事的具体活动应被定性为本条款含义内的“商业活动”。相反,它仅限于作出概括性和概括性的陈述,因此不符合§1605(A)(2)的法律要求。

  由于起诉书未能确定具体活动,因此无法确定这些活动是否符合美国最高法院在Verlinden B.V.诉尼日利亚中央银行案 中制定的标椎,根据该标准,外国国家在行使也可由普通公民行使的权力去从事商业活动。

  密苏里州援引了第1605(A)(2)节第三条,该条款授予对“基于……在美国领土以外与外国在其他地方引起直接影响的商业活动有关的行为”的行为的管辖权。它没有说明它所描述的一般性活动可能对美国产生了哪些直接影响。在阿根廷共和国诉韦尔托弗案 中,美国最高法院规定,为了“直接”,效果必须是外国活动的直接后果。密苏里州没有表明它列出的活动确实在美国产生了直接影响,这可以被描述为中国或其机构开展的活动的直接后果。

  2.3.3侵权行为例外

  此外,密苏里州援引第1605(A)(5)节规定的侵权行为例外,声称声称引起大流行的行为相当于在美国发生的侵权行为。根据阿根廷共和国诉美国赫斯航运公司(amerada Hess Shipping Corp.)的最高法院的说法 ,它没有确定起诉书中列出的行为造成的任何财产损害或损失,更不用说证明这些行为发生在美国,第1605(A)(5)条仅限于此。

  2.3.4国家行为主义。

  此外,由于所有被投诉的活动都发生在中国境内,它们受到国家行为理论的保护,根据这一理论,各国对在其领土内实施的行为享有豁免权。这一原则的重要性得到了美国最高法院在Underhill诉Hernandez案中的承认 ,在该案中,首席大法官富勒要求全体一致的法院表示,“一个国家的法院不会对另一个国家的政府在其领土内所做的行为进行判决”。因此,“国家法案”原则为中国提供了密苏里州提到的所有“商业”行为的豁免权。

  与此同时,阿肯色州共和党参议员汤姆·科顿(Tom Cotton)和德克萨斯州共和党众议员丹·克伦肖(Dan Crenshaw)已经提出立法,修改外国政府豁免法,如果通过,将剥夺中国在冠状病毒案件中的豁免权。 这将具有追溯到2020年1月1日的效力,同时它也将适用于已经悬而未决的案件,如密苏里州提起的诉讼。

  美国宪法第一条第九款禁止国会通过此类事后法律。此外,即使较晚的行为可以根据后法规则撤销较早的行为,它也不能撤销国家行为理论,因为它有宪法基础。哈伦大法官在美国最高法院几乎一致通过的古巴国家银行诉萨巴蒂诺案 中明确了这一点。哈伦法官强调,三权分立规定了外国对在其领土内实施的行为的豁免权。由于“国家法”理论有其宪法基础,因此只能通过宪法修正案而不能通过国会法案予以搁置或修改。

  2.4不可抗力的抗辩

  此外,假设冠状病毒可能起源于中国,中国可能会援引国家责任法下的一项抗辩理由,如不可抗力、必要性或危急,这将免除国家的国家责任。在这方面,最突出的抗辩理由将是不可抗力。这一抗辩在国际法委员会关于国家对国际不法行为的责任的条款第23条中规定为:

  发生国家无法控制的不可抗拒的力量或不可预见的事件,使其在这种情况下实质上不可能履行义务。
在“公约”第二十三条案文的基础上,要成功援引不可抗力抗辩,必须满足五个条件:

  (一)发生不可抗拒的力量或者不可预见的事件;

  (二)不受国家控制的;

  (三)在该情形下实质上不能履行义务的。

  (四)情况不应是国家援引的;

  (五)国家也不应承担发生这种情况的风险。

  就不可抵抗性要求而言,必须有国家无法通过自己的手段避免或反对的限制。 可以说,这次爆发是由于一股不可抗拒的力量。为了反驳这一论点,原告必须证明,中国本可以更早地将病毒控制住,这可以阻止病毒进一步向国外传播。

  如果这件事是不可预见的,那一定是既没有预见到,也不是很容易预见的那种。 可以说,冠状病毒的发生对中国来说是一个不可预见的事件,在疫情明显之后病毒随后传播到的州,病毒突然出现的情况就不那么严重了。

  第23条ARS还要求具体事件不受国家控制。这一要求暗示着一种不可能的因素,换句话说,这是一件压倒国家的事件。 在法律文献中,关于不可能性是否必须是绝对的,没有达成共识。假设这一绝对不可能的因素适用,密苏里州案件的原告将不得不证明中国有机会阻止疫情爆发。

  重大不能履行可能是由于自然或物理事件,或人道主义干预,或两者的某种组合。 一种未知病毒的出现将被认为是一种自然事件,中国无法逃脱其影响。要有效援引不可抗力抗辩,国家应能够证明实际不可能履行,而不是增加履行难度。 在这种情况下,中国可以正当地声称实际不可能。

  此外,如果事件可以归因于有关国家的行为,或者如果国家承担了发生这种情况的风险,则不可抗力抗辩不适用。在本案中,举证责任再次落在原告身上。应该由他们来证明中国在预防和控制具体疫情方面的疏忽。

  重要的是,冠状病毒的爆发似乎涉及一种无症状的传播方式,因此,这意味着已符合第23条的第一和第二个条件。如果中国援引不可抗力抗辩理由,原告将承担举证责任,以证明中国确实对具体疫情做出了实质性贡献。同样,该病毒的特点是无症状传播,这一事实也可能表明,中国无法合理地对手头的情况做出迅速反应,以抑制病毒的传播。

  因此,鉴於这种病毒的特殊性质,冠状病毒的爆发可能会触发不可抗力的抗辩。特别是考虑到病毒的繁殖和传播方式仍有许多未知的事实,第23条ARS的第一、第二、第四和第五个标准似乎得到了有利于中国的满足。

  3.密苏里州案是联邦主义激进主义的一个例子

  密苏里州提起的诉讼可以说是一种法律诉讼形式,即利用法律作为在冲突中进一步实现战略目标的手段。 这也可以被认为是美国一直在发展的激进联邦主义趋势的下一个阶段。

  作为各州的首席法律官员,总检察长负责执行州法律,保护州不受法律挑战。 传统上,他们会对联邦政府提起法庭诉讼,以抵制联邦政府篡夺宪法安排中规定的各州责任。除了这些“纵向”法律诉讼外,自20世纪90年代以来,司法部长们越来越多地参与“横向”诉讼,试图影响联邦政府的国家政策。

  因此,在2004年,在马萨诸塞州诉环境保护局案中,一些州的司法部长成功地挑战了联邦环境保护局拒绝将二氧化碳和其他温室气体作为污染物进行监管的决定。 2010年,几位司法部长向最高法院挑战了“患者保护和平价医疗法案”(Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act),也被称为“奥巴马医改”(Obamacare)的合宪性。在全国独立企业联合会诉西贝利厄斯案的判决中,法院支持该法案的大部分条款是符合宪法的。 2014年,在美国诉德克萨斯州一案中,大量司法部长对奥巴马政府采取的行政行动提出质疑,这些行政行动将驱逐无犯罪记录的无证外国人作为驱逐的最低优先事项,并给予作为美国公民父母的非法移民更安全的地位。美国第五巡回上诉法院裁定,奥巴马总统发布的命令违反了“行政诉讼法”的规则制定要求。 这一判决在2016年得到了最高法院的确认。 在德克萨斯州诉美国案中,多个州再次挑战“患者保护和平价医疗法案”(Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act)。此案将在本学期晚些时候由最高法院裁决。

  正如这些案例所显示的那样,各州的总检察长通过提起这些案件,已经成为国家层面上的重要参与者。 他们是在高度两极分化的政治气候下运作的。 因此,具有相同政治信仰的司法部长倾向于联合起来,这使得“红”(共和党)和“蓝”(民主党)司法部长团体联合起来,有时在同一案件中处于相反的地点。因此,密苏里州买下的这起案件应该被视为总检察长搞国家政治倾向的延伸。

  4.结论

  密苏里州对中国和多家中国实体提起的诉讼不太可能胜诉。密苏里州似乎缺乏提起诉讼的资格,这很可能被认为是一个不可审判的政治问题。此外,中国及其机构在美国法院享有豁免权,密苏里州援引的例外,即商业活动例外和侵权行为例外不适用。此外,国家行为主义原则是诉讼的障碍。最后,中国可能会成功援引不可抗力抗辩。这起案件代表着美国各州总检察长日益增长的联邦主义激进主义进入了一个新阶段,密苏里州总检察长的目标可能是确保在民意法庭而不是法院取得胜利。

  中方对此案一直保持沉默。由于在美国对抗性的法律文化中,不抗辩法律主张被普遍视为接受,因此从中国的角度来看,开始批评密苏里州的申诉将会有所帮助。这篇论文表明,建立一个相反的案例并不太难。例如,可以通过向提起诉讼的密苏里州东区美国地区法院(东南部分部)提交法庭之友案情摘要,或通过向美国的论坛提交材料来提交此案。
 
The COVID-19 law suit brought by Missouri against China

Alexander Knoops, Professor of Politics of International Law, University of Amsterdam
Tom Zwart, Professor of Cross-cultural Law, Utrecht University, Director of the Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

1. Introduction

On April 21st, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt initiated proceedings in the federal District Court against the People's Republic of China and some of its entities, such as the National Health Commission, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the local governments of Hubei and Wuhan.  With the help of a 47-page complaint General Schmitt is seeking recovery for the loss of life, human suffering and economic turmoil resulting from the COVID-19 virus as experienced by Missourians. According to General Schmitt, the Corona pandemic was due to a failure to act by the Chinese authorities. The Missouri case, which has since been joined by the state of Mississippi, is one of several such cases, including class actions, which have been brought in the US against China.

This paper proceeds in four sections. In section 2 the arguments put forward by Missouri will be analysed and the prospect of their success will be assessed. Section 3 will explain why bringing the case fits into a pattern that has emerged during the past two decades within federal relations in the US. Section 4 contains some concluding observations, among them some suggestions on how China could deal with this kind of cases.

2. Does Missouri have an arguable case?

2.1 Standing

Under federal U.S. law, a claimant needs to pass a three-pronged test in order to have standing: 

1) She or he must have suffered an ‘injury in fact’, i.e. an invasion of a legally protected interest. This invasion must be concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent rather than conjectural or hypothetical.

2) There must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of. This means that the injury has to be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant and should not be the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court.

3) It must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favourable decision by the court.

U.S. standing law is therefore close to the private interest model, which regards injury to body, property, or reputation as a prerequisite for standing. Overall, the Court has kept out those who could not claim to have a personal interest in the outcome.

In the case at hand, Missouri will have much difficulty in meeting the second requirement. The state claims injury in fact as being the costs in terms of health, life, the economy and the toll on human relationships, but it has failed to demonstrate that there is a causal relationship between the alleged injury and the conduct complained of.

At first sight the state might be able to circumvent this standing requirement by relying on a concept introduced by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA in which a number of states Attorney General had challenged the refusal of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses as pollutants.  The Court's majority, led by Justice Stevens, pointed out that when a state enters the Union it surrenders certain sovereign prerogatives. Although they have delegated these powers to the Union, the states still retain a residual interest in the way they are being exercised. This 'special solicitude' provides them with standing to initiate proceedings to protect these quasi-sovereign interests.  This special solicitude standing appears to trump the three-pronged test applied by the courts in 'ordinary' standing cases.

However, this special solicitude standing doctrine is not an entrenched part of the Court's case law. First, the judgment in Massachusetts v. EPA was a narrow 5-4 decision, accompanied by a fierce dissenting opinion submitted by Chief Justice Roberts in which the 'special solicitude' concept was heavily criticised by the Justices who were in the minority. Before the concept could be regarded as part of stare decisis, a confirmation in a subsequent case was therefore required. 

The United States v. Texas case, which was brought in 2014 by a large number of Attorneys General, seemed well suited for this purpose. The Attorneys General challenged administrative actions taken by the Obama administration making the deportation of undocumented aliens without criminal histories the lowest priority for removal and giving a more secure status to undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens. The United States Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit decided that the orders issued by President Obama violated the rulemaking requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.  The Court found that the Attorneys General had standing on the basis of the special solicitude test. However, the much anticipated judgment of the Supreme Court did not bring the desired clarity.  As a result of the unexpected passing of Justice Scalia, the case had to be decided by the eight remaining Justices, who split 4-4. Consequently, the judgment of the Court of Appeal was affirmed, but this decision did not have any precedential value. 

Even if Missouri would be entitled to special solicitude standing in cases regarding federalist or even national issues, it is highly doubtful whether it could also claim a quasi-sovereign interest in international matters, since concepts as the foreign affairs doctrine and the political question doctrine tend to limit the capacity of the states to interfere with the national government's prerogative in foreign affairs. 

2.2 The political question doctrine

Since the complaint clearly interferes with US foreign policy towards China, which currently amounts to a balancing act involving highly sensitive trade negotiations, it is bound to be declared a non-justiciable political question. The case of Marbury v Madison is usually considered the cradle of the non-justiciability doctrine.  In his opinion Chief Justice Marshall made a distinction between decisions based on duties assigned by law and discretionary decisions. The former were suited to adjudication by the courts, while the latter ought to be decided by the political branches.

In Justice Brennan’s majority opinion in Baker v Carr the discretion/non-discretion distinction was replaced by a division into six categories.  According to Justice Brennan an issue is non-justiciable in case of

• a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department;

• a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it;

• the impossibility of deciding the issue without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly not for judges to make;

• the fact that adjudication would result in a lack of respect for one of the coordinate branches;

• the need to adhere unquestioningly to a political decision already made;

• and the embarrassment that could be caused by more than one department pronouncing itself on the same question.

According to Justice Brennan, foreign affairs issues tend to be covered by the political question doctrine for three reasons: frequently they turn on standards that defy judicial application; they may involve the exercise of a discretion demonstrably committed to the executive or legislature; or they uniquely demand single-voice statement of the government's views. For these reasons it is highly likely that the Court will dismiss the Missouri complaint as being non-justiciable.

2.3 Immunity

2.3.1 Immunity under the Foreign Government Immunities Act and public international law

Foreign states, like China, enjoy sovereign immunity before US Courts under the US Foreign Government Immunities Act and public international law. General Schmitt has tried to circumvent this bar by listing the Communist Party of China as a defendant, while claiming that “the Communist Party is not an organ or political subdivision of the PRC, nor is it owned by the PRC or a political subdivision of the PRC, and thus it is not protected by sovereign immunity”.

This position is contrary to international law, according to which state immunity extends to all organs, components, and entities of the state, which, of course, also includes the Communist Party. Furthermore, the Secretary General of the Communist Party also serves as the head of state, who by definition enjoys the protection of state immunity. The actions challenged in the Missouri complaint are all attributable, either directly or indirectly, to the President of China.

2.3.2 The commercial activities exception

In addition, the complaint has invoked the commercial activities exception to sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2), by claiming that the conduct which allegedly caused the pandemic was commercial in nature. These commercial activities allegedly included the operation of the Chinese healthcare system; commercial research on viruses conducted by the Wuhan Institute and the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the operation of traditional and social media platforms for commercial gain; and the production, purchasing and import and export of medical equipment. 

The complaint fails to identify which specific activities performed by which entity or entities should be characterised as 'commercial activities' within the meaning of this provision. Instead, it limits itself to making sweeping and generalised statements and therefore it does not meet the legal requirements of § 1605(a)(2).

Since the complaint fails to identify concrete activities, it cannot be established whether these activities meet the test developed by the US Supreme Court in Verlinden B.V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria,  according to which a foreign state engages in commercial activities when it exercises powers that can also be exercised by private citizens.

Missouri invokes the third clause of § 1605(a)(2) which confers jurisdiction over actions that are "based upon ... an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere that causes a direct effect in the United States". It fails to demonstrate which direct effects the activities it described in general terms may have had in the United States. In Republic of Argentina v. Weltover,  the US Supreme Court stated that in order to be 'direct' the effect must follow as an immediate consequence of the foreign state's activity. Missouri has not showed that the activities it listed did have direct effects in the US which could be characterised as the immediate consequences of activities performed by China or its instrumentalities.

2.3.3 The tortious conduct exception

Furthermore, Missouri has invoked the tortious conduct exception laid down in § 1605(a)(5) by claiming that the activities which allegedly caused the pandemic amounted to torts occurring in the US. It has not identified any damage or loss of property which resulted from the acts that were listed in the complaint, let alone demonstrated that those occurred in the United States, to which § 1605(a)(5) is limited, according to the Supreme Court in Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp.  

2.3.4 The Act of State doctrine

Moreover, since all activities complained of took place within China they are covered by the Act of State doctrine, according to which states enjoy immunity for acts performed within their territory. The importance of this doctrine was recognized by the US Supreme Court in Underhill v. Hernandez,  where Chief Justice Fuller for a unanimous Court stated that "the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another, done within its own territory." Therefore, the Act of State doctrine provides China with immunity for all 'commercial' acts referred to by Missouri.

In the meantime Republican Senator Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw (Texas) have introduced legislation to amend the Foreign Government Immunities Act, which, if enacted, would deprive China of immunity in Covid-19 cases.  This it would do with retroactive effect to January 1st, 2020, while it would also apply to cases which are already pending, such as the suit brought by Missouri.

Congress is prohibited from passing such ex post facto laws by Article 1 § 9 of the US Constitution. In addition, even if a later act can set aside an earlier act under the lex posterior rule, it cannot revoke the Act of State doctrine, because it has constitutional underpinnings. This was made clear by Justice Harlan for an almost unanimous US Supreme Court in Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino.  Justice Harlan emphasised that the separation of powers prescribes the immunity of foreign states for acts performed within their territory. Since the Act of State doctrine has its basis in the Constitution, it can only be set aside or amended through a Constitutional amendment and not through an Act of Congress.
 
2.4 The defence of force majeure

Furthermore, assuming arguendo that COVID-19 would have its origin in China, the country might invoke one of the defences under the law of state responsibility, such as force majeure, necessity or distress, which would absolve the country from state responsibility. The most prominent defence in this regard would be that of force majeure. This defence has been formulated in Article 23 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARS) as :

"the occurrence of an irresistible force or of an unforeseen event, beyond the control of the State, making it materially impossible in the circumstances to perform the obligation."

On the basis of the text of Article 23 ARS, five requirements will have to be met for a defence of force majeure to be successfully invoked: 

1) The occurrence of an irresistible force or an unforeseen event;

2) Beyond the control of the State;

3) Making it materially impossible in the circumstances to perform the obligation.

4) The situation should not be due to the State invoking it; 

5) Nor should the State have taken the risk of the situation occurring.

As far as the irresistibility requirement is concerned, there must be a constraint which the State was unable to avoid or oppose by its own means.  It can be argued that this outbreak was due to an irresistible force. In order to counter this argument, the plaintiffs will have to prove that China would have been able to bring the virus under control far earlier, and that this could have prevented a further transmission of the virus abroad.

To have been unforeseen the event must have been neither foreseen nor of an easily foreseeable kind.  The occurrence of the COVID-19 can arguably be qualified as an unforeseen event for China, where the virus suddenly emerged an less so for the states to which the virus subsequently spread after the outbreak became apparent.

Article 23 ARS also requires that the specific event was beyond the control of the state. This requirement implies an element of impossibility, in other words, an event that overpowers the state.  In the legal literature there is no consensus on whether the impossibility must be absolute. Assuming that this element of absolute impossibility applies, the plaintiffs in the Missouri case will have to prove that China had an opportunity to prevent the outbreak.

Material impossibility of performance may be due to a natural or physical event or to humanitarian intervention, or some combination of the two.  The emergence of an unknown virus would qualify as a natural event, from the effects of which China could not escape. To validly invoke the defence of force majeure, the State should be able to prove actual impossibility rather than increased difficulty of performance.  In this case China could validly claim actual impossibility. 

Moreover, the defence of  force majeure does not apply if the event can be attributed to the conduct of the State in question, or if the state has taken the risk of that situation occurring. Again, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs in the present case. It is up to them to demonstrate that China was negligent in the prevention of the specific outbreak and in the control thereof.

Importantly, the outbreak of COVID-19 seems to involve an asymptomatic type of transmission and this would mean, therefore, that the first and second condition of Article 23 have been met. In the event that China would invoke the defence of force majeure, the plaintiffs bear the burden to show that China did substantially contribute to the specific outbreak. Again, the fact that the virus is characterised by an asymptomatic type of transmission may also show that China was not reasonably able to swiftly respond to the situation at hand in order to suppress the spread of the virus.

Therefore, in view of the special nature of this specific virus, the outbreak of COVID-19 might qualify as triggering the defence of force majeure. Especially in light of the fact that much is still unknown about the way in which the virus multiplies and spreads, the first, second, fourth and fifth criterion of Article 23 ARS seem to have been met in favour of China.

3. The Missouri case as an example of federalist activism

The lawsuit brought by Missouri can be described as a form of lawfare, i.e. the use of law as a means to further strategic aims in conflict.  It can also be regarded as the next phase in the trend of activist federalism which has been developing in the US.

As the chief legal officers of the respective states, the Attorneys General are responsible for enforcing state law and defending the state against legal challenges.  Traditionally, they have initiated court proceedings against the federal government to resist its usurpation of the responsibilities of the states as laid out in the constitutional arrangements. In addition to these 'vertical' law suits, since the 1990s Attorneys General have increasingly become engaged in 'horizontal' proceedings in which they have tried to impact the national policy of the federal government.

Thus in 2004, in Massachusetts v. EPA, a number of states attorney general successfully challenged the refusal of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses as pollutants.  In 2010, several attorneys general challenged the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also know as Obamacare, before the Supreme Court. In its judgment in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius the Court upheld most of the provisions of the Act as being constitutional.  In 2014, in United States v. Texas a large number of attorneys general challenged administrative actions taken by the Obama administration making the deportation of undocumented aliens without criminal histories the lowest priority for removal and giving a more secure status to undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens. The United States Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit decided that the order issues by President Obama violated the rulemaking requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.  This decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2016.  In Texas v. US, a number of states have again challenged the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The case will be decided later this term by the Supreme Court.

As these cases show, the states' Attorneys General, by bringing these cases, have become important players at the national level.  They are operating within a highly polarized political climate.  As a result, Attorneys General of the same political persuasion tend to join forces, which has let to groups of 'red' (Republican) and 'blue' (Democrat) Attorneys General teaming up, sometimes on opposite sites in the same case. Therefore, the case bought by Missouri should be regarded an extension of the tendency of Attorneys General to engage in national politics. 

4. Conclusion

The court case brought by Missouri against China and a number of Chinese entities is unlikely to succeed. Missouri appears to lack standing to bring the case, which is likely to be deemed a non-justiciable political question. In addition, China and its instrumentalities enjoy immunity in US Courts and the exceptions invoked by Missouri, i.e. the commercial activities exception and the tortious conduct exception, do not apply. Furthermore, the Act of State doctrine acts as a barrier to the suit. Finally, China may successfully invoke the defence of force majeure. Through this case, which represents a new phase in the growing federalist activism of states Attorneys General in the US, the Attorney General of Missouri probably aims to secure a victory in the court of public opinion rather than in the court of law.

The case has been mainly met with silence from the Chinese side.  Since not contesting legal claims is widely regarded as accepting them within the adversarial legal culture of the US, from a Chinese point of view it will be helpful to start critiquing the Missouri complaint. The present paper shows that it will not be too difficult to build an opposing case. This case can be presented, for example, by filing an amicus curiae brief with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri (Southeastern Division), where the case was filed, or by submitting contributions to forums in the US. 


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