The US Court of Appeals in Washington on Wednesday ruled in favor of the US government in a lawsuit that argues the US is Taiwan’s principal occupying power based on the San Francisco Peace Treaty (SFPT) and enjoys sovereign authority.
Reaffirming that the court does not deal with political matters, the judges said the question was inconclusive.
“Addressing [the] Appellants’ claims would require identification of Taiwan’s sovereign. The Executive Branch has deliberately remained silent on this issue and we cannot intrude on its decision,” the judges said. “Therefore, as the district court correctly concluded, consideration of Appellants’ claims is barred by the political question doctrine.”
In December 2006, Roger Lin (林志昇) and other Taiwanese expatriates took their case to US courts, arguing that Japan relinquished control over Taiwan and Penghu after World War II but did not return it to China.
The group asked the US court system to determine what rights Taiwanese have based on the treaty and the US Constitution, including whether they should be issued US passports.
Lin said the treaty did not address sovereignty over Taiwan and Penghu, meaning the US was still the principal occupying power.
The lawsuit began at Washington’s district court, where Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in favor of the US government, arguing that courts do not deal with political matters.
Despite the latest setback, Lin and former Judicial Yuan vice president Cheng Chung-mo (城仲模), who is the representative plaintiff, called the ruling encouraging.
“This is a breakthrough for the court to retain its ruling on Taiwanese people’s status as stateless,” Cheng said.
The judgment said the people of Taiwan “have uncertain status in the world community.”
“America and China’s tumultuous relationship over the past sixty years has trapped the inhabitants of Taiwan in political purgatory,” the judges said. “During this time the people on Taiwan have lived without any uniformly recognized government. In practical terms, this means they have uncertain status in the world community which infects the population’s day-to-day lives.”
But they added: “Determining Appellants’ nationality would require us to trespass into a controversial area of U.S. foreign policy in order to resolve a question the Executive Branch intentionally left unanswered for over sixty years: who exercises sovereignty over Taiwan. This we cannot do.”
The “political question doctrine bars consideration of Appellants’ claims,” the judges said.
“Appellants may even be correct; careful analysis of the SFPT might lead us to conclude the United States has temporary sovereignty. But we will never know, because the political question doctrine forbids us from commencing that analysis. We do not dictate to the Executive what governments serve as the supreme political authorities of foreign lands,” the ruling said.
The judges said that then-US president Jimmy Carter’s switch of diplomatic recognition in 1979 from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China prompted the US’ Taiwan Relation Act, which lays out the US’ “unofficial relationship with ‘the people of Taiwan.’”
Cheng said the group would appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping the court could hold a public hearing on the case.
Cheng expressed optimism that the court would hear the case.