Appeals court revisits Armenian genocide lawsuit

November 7, 2011 - 5:00 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday took up the thorny issue of whether California law declaring there was an Armenian genocide in Turkey conflicts with U.S. foreign policy.

At issue is a state law that labels the deaths a genocide, allowing heirs of Armenians killed in the Turkish Ottoman Empire to pursue a lawsuit seeking life insurance payments from three German insurers.

It's the third time in two years the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has confronted the politically charged question. In a rare move, the court reversed itself last year after a judge changed her mind and turned a 2-1 ruling rendered in 2009 in favor of insurers into a 2-1 decision supporting the heirs' lawsuit.

On Monday, the court's chief justice announced in a brief statement that a majority of judges had voted to rehear the case — a move that wipes out the 2010 decision.

The insurers, which include Munich Re AG, argue California's law should be struck down because it conflicts with U.S. foreign policy, which they say sides with Turkey in refusing to call the Armenian deaths genocide. Turkey describes the deaths as resulting from civil unrest that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The insurers point to decisions by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to defeat congressional legislation that would have recognized an Armenian genocide.

Lawyers for the heirs argue those presidential views are not official policy. They say the United States lacks a formal position, which means the California law is not in conflict with any national policy.

Lawyers representing the heirs have filed similar lawsuits against New York Life Insurance Co. and French insurer AXA, which were settled in 2005 for a combined $37.5 million.