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Supreme Court Hears Arguments on State Holocaust Insurance Law

April 28, 2003
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Some 20,000 California residents may find it harder to obtain payments on Holocaust-era insurance policies if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law meant to aid survivors and heirs of Jews killed by the Nazis.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week on the constitutionality of California’s Holocaust Registry Law, which would bar European insurers and their American affiliates from doing business in the state if they refuse to publish a full list of all policy holders between 1920 and 1945.

Many, if not most, of the Jewish policyholders perished in the Holocaust, and their descendants say that the insurance companies have stonewalled demands for payments over some 50 years, often maintaining that they could find no records of the policies.

The insurance companies, joined by the U.S. Justice Department, argued that the federal government has sole jurisdiction in the matter and that all claims should be processed through an international commission established in 1998.

Critics argue that only a trickle of claims have been resolved by the commission, which is funded entirely by European insurance companies.

The court will make public its ruling on the case in late June, but from the tone of the justices’ comments and questions, it is widely expected that California will lose out.

“The law makes reference to Nazi-controlled Germany and the Holocaust, none of which is California’s concern,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said during the oral arguments.

Although not all provisions of the California law are at stake in the Supreme Court hearings, attorneys currently litigating related cases believe that if the court rules for the insurance companies and the federal government, Holocaust survivors in California — and in five other states with similar laws — will have an even more difficult time collecting adequate payments in the future.

Following the hearings, California Gov. Gray Davis pledged that his administration would continue to fight for the rights of Holocaust victims and said that “it would be a travesty for the Supreme Court to wipe out this potential tool for survivors to verify their families’ insurance policies.”

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