Jewish Groups, Survivors Upset by California Insurance Law Ruling
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Jewish Groups, Survivors Upset by California Insurance Law Ruling

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The fight over unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies will now move to Congress, advocates say, after the Supreme Court struck down a California law that required European insurance companies to disclose information about their war-time policies.

Holocaust survivors and Jewish organizations reacted with anger and disappointment to Monday’s ruling. Attorney Frank Kaplan of Los Angeles, who represented the California Department of Insurance in the Supreme Court case, said the main recourse left would be congressional action.

“It’s clear that Congress must act. The Supreme Court decision will spur momentum and move the legislation forward,” Waxman said.

Much of the dismay was directed at the Bush administration, which sided with the insurance companies in the case.

“This is very disheartening,” said Suzanne Weiner-Zada, 73, a Hungarian-born survivor of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, who is suing an Italian insurance company. “Why would an American court side with foreign companies against American citizens?”

“The insurance companies have been stonewalling us and cheating us for almost 60 years,” the Los Angeles resident added. “You would think that the United States government would be morally on our side.”

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act of 1999, which revoked the state license of any company ignoring the disclosure law, was an unconstitutional interference with the president’s foreign-policy prerogatives.

The decision specifically invalidated the part of the California law that forced insurance companies to make public the owners and substance of all policies written between 1920 and 1945.

Other provisions were not affected, such as those allowing plaintiffs to file claims against the companies in California courts and extending the deadline for filing such claims until 2010.

However, legal experts said the high-court ruling could chill the judicial climate in considering related cases.

Among those most disappointed was former California state assemblyman Wally Knox, who authored the California law and helped it weather a gubernatorial veto and a number of lower-court challenges.

“This law was struck down for one reason, and that is because the president of the United States was opposed to it,” Knox said. “As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” — who dissented from the majority — “noted, the president sided with the companies that sided with the Nazi looting of Jewish families.”

Knox, who now serves as executive director of California’s Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims Oversight Committee, said he was baffled by Bush’s position.

The American Insurance Association, which spearheaded the legal fight against the California law, expressed its satisfaction with the outcome.

“We believe that the International Commission for Holocaust Era Insurance Claims,” or ICHEIC, “which was established specifically to handle Holocaust insurance claims, is the best way to provide a measure of financial relief today,” AIA’s senior vice president, Craig Berrington, said in a statement.

“As both the Clinton and Bush administrations made clear in this long litigation process, the issues remaining from the Holocaust are matters for the United States government, not individual states,” he said.

Italy’s Generali is one of the chief financial underwriters of ICHEIC, a voluntary commission made up of representatives from European insurance companies, American state insurance regulators, Jewish organizations and the State of Israel.

However, since its establishment in 1998, the commission has been dogged by charges of unnecessary delays, meager accomplishments and administrative overspending. It has set a deadline of Sept. 30 for filing Holocaust-related insurance claims.

New York attorney Kenneth Bialkin, Generali’s lead counsel in the United States — and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — said his company “was not unhappy” with the decision, which he described as “well crafted.”

Others said the issue would not end with Monday’s ruling.

The Supreme Court decision “points to the urgent need for federal legislation that will compel insurers wishing to do business in the United States to reveal information about policies held during the Holocaust era,” Michael Bohnen, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said in a statement. “We are encouraged that conversations have already begun in the U.S. Congress and we look forward to working in a bipartisan manner to try to right some of the wrongs that have been allowed to linger far too long.”

“The effort to ensure that unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies are paid will continue regardless of this decision,” agreed Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. “This has always been a matter of morality, and not just legality.”

California Gov. Gray Davis also pledged to continue the fight “to deliver full justice to victims of Nazi persecution, calling it “more than a policy decision. This is a moral imperative.”

In Los Angeles, both Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Simon Wiesenthal Center had filed friend-of-the-court briefs, in which they argued that “callous insurance companies that profited from the Holocaust need secrecy, not only to keep the properties they stole from corpses, but to continue to do business today with Californians who would be rightly concerned” if “they learned the truth.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said the court ruling was a blow not only to Holocaust victims but to the legal efforts of American ex-prisoners of war to obtain compensation for forced labor under their Japanese captors.

“It is the shame of the U.S. State Department that it claims foreign policy prerogatives to give cover” to the wartime deeds of former enemies, Cooper said.

The Supreme Court’s two Jewish justices were on opposite sides of the decision, with Stephen Breyer voting with the majority and Ginsburg writing the minority’s dissent.

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