Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale v. United States Dist. Court for Southern Dist. of Iowa

482 U. S. 522

June 15, 1987

A French manufactured plane crashed in Iowa, and the inevitable lawsuit ensued. The District Court tried to order extensive discovery over in France under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The French argued that the Court was obliged to follow the procedures in the Hague Convention, a multi-lateral treaty prescribing common rules for evidence gathering in international disputes. The District Court held that, since the French submitted to the court’s jurisdiction, the Hague Convention did not even apply.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the District Court could use the Federal Rules rather than the Hague Convention. Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion, which examined the Convention and found its language clearly permissive rather than mandatory. Using the same textual analysis, Stevens also rejected the claim that the Hague Convention did not apply at all, and showed that any evidence to be collected abroad was within the treaty’s reach. Nonetheless, the majority opinion rejected the idea that the Hague Convention should always be resorted to first, before using the Federal Rules. Stevens pointed out that some Convention procedures were unwieldy and time consuming, and suggested that allowing national rules to be used in the first instance was consistent with the ideal of international comity. He concluded that courts should make case specific determinations as to which procedures would work best.

Blackmun dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and O’Connor. While he recognized the permissive rather than mandatory language of the treaty, he felt the Convention should be used first. He thought courts were ill-equipped to decide which set of rules would work best, and did not think comity was well served by ignoring a major multi-lateral convention. The dissent also showed that the majority had greatly exaggerated the inconvenience and uncertainty of using Hague processes, and that there were informal means of securing evidence under the Convention which operated quickly and efficiently. More broadly, Blackmun bemoaned the majority’s seeming aversion to international co-operation, common ground, and reciprocity.

This is another one of those cases where I am not certain which side is correct legally, but I definitely know which side I prefer politically. As far as I am concerned, the less international law the better. Global co-operation and collaboration rarely leads to anything helpful or godly (three words: Tower of Babel).

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