POLITICS

The Supreme Court Is 100 Percent Unanimous. That Won't Last Long.

But for one brief shining moment, the justices all agreed on something.

WASHINGTON -- Since October, the Supreme Court has been 100 percent unanimous in its rulings.

That's probably because the court just issued its first decision in an argued case this term -- a 9-0 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The case, OBB Personenverkehr AG v. Sachs, was a quirky one involving the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a law that largely protects foreign countries and their agencies from being dragged into a U.S. federal court. 

In an 11-page ruling issued Tuesday, Roberts wrote that OBB, a railway company owned by the Republic of Austria, is shielded from a federal lawsuit brought by a California woman who was horribly injured during a trip abroad.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a unanimous court -- not the usual outcome.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a unanimous court -- not the usual outcome.

"OBB has sovereign immunity under the Act, and accordingly the courts of the United States lack jurisdiction over the suit," he wrote.

The decision marks a big loss for Carol Sachs, who was hoping to convince the Supreme Court that an exception under the law for "commercial activity carried on in the United States" would allow her to sue the Austrian railway here. Sachs latched on to that exception because she had purchased her Eurail ticket from a Massachusetts-based agent that billed itself as "the largest single train ticket and rail pass outlet in the U.S.," but disclaimed all responsibility in the event of any accidents during the trip.

Visiting Austria in 2007, Sachs slipped while attempting to board an OBB train. She fell from the platform onto the tracks, and in Roberts' retelling of the facts, "OBB's moving train crushed her legs, both of which had to be amputated above the knee."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with Sachs that the exception to immunity applied to her case and thus the railroad could be sued in federal court. But the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, reasoning that Sachs' purchase of a Eurail pass in the U.S. from a third party was not enough of a connection to OBB, under a prior precedent, to allow her to bring her case in the U.S.

"All of her claims turn on the same tragic episode in Austria, allegedly caused by wrongful conduct and dangerous conditions in Austria, which led to injuries suffered in Austria," Roberts wrote.

The chief justice evoked two oft-quoted predecessors, Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Felix Frankfurter, to explain the court's decision.

"A century ago, in a letter to then-Professor Frankfurter, Justice Holmes wrote that the essentials of a personal injury narrative will be found at the point of contact -- 'the place where the boy got his fingers pinched,'" Roberts wrote.

In other words, Sachs may be able to find relief in the courts of Austria, just not in the U.S.

The Supreme Court's current unanimity will certainly be short-lived. Between now and June, the justices will be deciding high-profile disputes on abortion, affirmative action at public universities, voting rights, contraception, public-sector union fees and maybe even immigration -- all before the 2016 presidential election.

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