Article | International Law
In Defense of International Comity
by Samuel Estreicher* & Thomas H. Lee†
From Vol. 93, No. 2 (January 2020)
93 S. Cal. L. Rev. 169 (2020)
Keywords: International Comity, Federal Common Law, Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital
A chorus of critics, led by the late Justice Scalia, have condemned the practice of federal courts’ refraining from hearing cases over which they have subject-matter jurisdiction because of international comity—respect for the governmental interests of other nations. They assail the practice as unprincipled abandonment of judicial duty and unnecessary given statutes and settled judicial doctrines that amply protect foreign governmental interests and guide the lower courts. But existing statutes and doctrines do not give adequate answers to the myriad cases in which such interests are implicated given the scope of present-day globalization and features of the U.S. legal system that attract foreign litigants. The problem is ubiquitous. For instance, four cases decided in the Supreme Court’s 2017 October Term raised international comity concerns and illustrate the Court’s difficulty grappling with these issues.
This Article cuts against prevailing academic commentary (endorsed, to some extent, by the newly-minted Restatement (Fourth) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States) and presents the first sustained defense of the widespread practice of international comity abstention in the lower federal courts—a practice the Supreme Court has not yet passed on but will almost certainly decide soon. At the same time, we acknowledge that the critics are right to assert that the way lower courts currently implement international comity—through a multi-factored interest analysis—is too manipulable and invites judicial shirking. Consequently, we propose a new federal common law framework for international comity based in part on historical practice from the Founding to the early twentieth century when federal courts frequently dealt with cases implicating foreign governmental interests with scant congressional or executive guidance, primarily in the maritime context. That old law is newly relevant. What is called for is forthright recognition of a federal common law doctrine of international comity that enables courts to exercise principled discretion in dealing with asserted foreign governmental interests and clears up conceptual confusion between prescriptive and adjudicative manifestations of international comity.
*. Dwight D. Opperman Professor of Law & Codirector, Institute for Judicial Administration, New York University School of Law.
†. Leitner Family Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law.