Case of the Day: Sikhs for Justice v. Singh

The case of the day is Sikhs for Justice v. Singh (D.D.C. 2014). This is the third Sikhs for Justice case we’ve considered. The first, Sikhs for Justice v. Nath (S.D.N.Y. 2012), involved an attempt to serve process on the defendant inside the Indian consulate. The second, Sikhs for Justice v. Badal (7th Cir. 2013), involved a case of mistaken identity in service of process. Today’s case involves head of state immunity.

Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert
Inderjit Singh, acting pro se, sued Manmohan Singh, then India’s prime minister, claiming that as finance minister from 1991-1996 and as prime minister from 2004 through the time of the filing of the lawsuit, Manmohan Singh bore personal responsibility for the Indian government’s “pattern of oppression and violence against the Sikh religious minority.” This is surprising to me, since Manmoham Singh himself is a Sikh; but I don’t claim to understand the politics of the situation.

Before Inderjit Singh was able to effect service of process, the United States filed a suggestion of immunity, arguing that as India’s sitting prime minister, Manmohan Singh was immune from the court’s jurisdiction. But before Inderjit responded to the suggestion, Manmohan Singh’s party lost the 2014 Indian election, and he resigned. Inderjit then argued that the suggestion of immunity was moot, because Manmohan Singh was no longer the prime minister.

While it’s true that Manmohan Singh, by virtue of his resignation, had lost his absolute status-based immunity, which belongs only to a the sitting head of state recognized by the executive branch, he retained a residual immunity for “official acts taken while he served in that capacity.” The court saw no need to decide whether this residual immunity was “merely derivative of status-based immunity or is actually a conduct-based immunity.” However, the court followed the executive branch’s lead in holding that Manmohan Singh had no immunity with respect to acts taken as Finance Minister, i.e., before he became a head of state.

There was one twist. When the government filed its suggestion of immunity, Manmohan Singh was the sitting prime minister. The government took the view that the filing of the suggestion of immunity immediately caused the court to lose jurisdiction, and that the later election loss should not have mattered. The judge rejected this argument for two reasons. First, the government’s position would lead to needless delay, as Inderjit Singh would simply re-file the suit. Second, the judge distinguished Ye v. Zemin, 383 F.3d 620 (7th Cir. 2004), a case that was dismissed on immunity grounds even though the defendant had left office when the suit was pending, because there all of the acts alleged took place when the defendant was head of state.

About Ted Folkman

Ted Folkman is a shareholder with Murphy & King, a Boston law firm, where he has a complex business litigation practice. He is the author of International Judicial Assistance (MCLE 2d ed. 2016), a nuts-and-bolts guide to international judicial assistance issues, and of the chapter on service of process in the ABA's forthcoming treatise on International Aspects of US Litigation, and he is the publisher of Letters Blogatory, the Web's first blog devoted to international judicial assistance, which the ABA recognized as one of the best 100 legal blogs in 2012, 2014, and 2015.

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