Ancient Coin Import Restriction Test Case Dismissed

Posted on August 11, 2011


A Maryland federal judge dismissed the ACCG’s test case challenging federal import restrictions as to ancient coins.  In February, 2010, I explained:

The ACCG complains that it had 23 coins seized from it by customs upon entering into the States from the UK, where the coins had been purchased, sans documentation of provenance.  The argument is two fold:

(1) The proper procedure for forfeiture has not been followed.  A due process violation has resulted.

(2) For the import restrictions under which the coins were seized, the proper procedure for enactment of those restrictions was not followed.

You can read the full 50+ page opinion here.  The gist is that the court does not have the authority to tell the executive branch what to do.  The Legal Times explained:

[Judge] Blake dismissed claims brought under the Administrative Procedure Act, writing that decisions made pursuant to presidential authority weren’t subject to judicial review.

Regarding whether the State Department exceeded its authority, Blake found that the law put the burden on the importer to prove the artifacts are legitimate, “and prohibits the importation of those objects if they cannot meet that burden.”

The responses to the decision are fairly predictable.  Paul Barford has kindly provided links via his post: Reactions to the Baltimore Illegal Coin Import Stunt Case Decision.  He comments that he’d like me to weigh in.  While I haven’t gotten through the full opinion, I will say that the Complaint rang “advisory opinion” to me from the start, which is related to the problem the Court identifies, although not exactly the same.  I had commented about the Complaint:

The biggest problem I see with the substance is that, as to the issues the ACCG takes with the import restrictions, the complaint is asking for an advisory opinion.  The ACCG was, of course, left with no choice but to go this route when the State refused to file a formal forfeiture action (where the ACCG could have contested the seizure, and made a more procedurally appropriate argument against the restrictions)…

Its also problematic that even if the restrictions were improperly enacted (without proper adherence to the CPIA requirements), where’s the remedy?  The “counts” section of the complaint struggles to answer that question, and the only place they can find any solace at all is the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).  I have a hard time thinking the Court is going to toss the import restrictions on the procedural failings as described (in detail) in the complaint, especially when the APA also would allow the Court to just order the State to provide the letter with the missing explanation, and it wouldn’t have to be much of one, frankly.

Also, with the ACCG’s legally sufficient seizure/due process claim, the Court won’t have to get to that argument (and I’m sure they won’t want to).  I get the impression from between the lines of the complaint that the ACCG knows this.  The problem, essentially, is that the CPIA does not create a substantive right for the ACCG to enforce.  If the provisions are not obeyed, the question is then, “So what?”  The ACCG is going to have to find an injury that brings with it its own vehicle for a remedy (in this case they look to the APA and the Fifth Amendment, mainly).

While the precise basis for the dismissal is a little different than what I had explored, it arises out of the same problem with this particular test case.  The Plaintiffs weren’t just asking for a limited decision about a specific seizure; they were looking for a broader decision about coin import restrictions.  The Court determined it didn’t have the authority to issue one.

Read my earlier post on this case: Cultural Property Law Deathmatch: The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. The State Department