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Missouri Attorney General Sues China, Chinese Agencies, And Wuhan Over Coronavirus

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaking in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. in September 2019.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Associated Press
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaking in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. in September 2019.

International law expert describes Eric Schmitt's lawsuit as "a last ditch" political effort.

The state of Missouri is suing China for that country's handling of the coronavirus outbreak. It's the first such lawsuit brought by a state, and relies on an unusual interpretation of federal law.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, has sued China, three government ministries, two local governments, two laboratories and the Communist Party in U.S. District Court, saying they all "engaged in misrepresentations, concealment, and retaliation to conceal the gravity and seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak from the rest of the world," according to Schmitt.

"There's been untold suffering across the globe, including here in Missouri, and we want to hold them accountable for that," Schmitt said.

China, however, is protected by sovereign immunity.

“A sovereign is not supposed to sue a sovereign, and that’s what’s going on here,” said Lea Brilmayer, professor of international law at Yale Law School.

Brilmayer said the case is highly unusual, and that most judges would find that they don’t have jurisdiction over a matter between a U.S. state and a sovereign country.

“This is a last ditch effort to do something to respond to the political situation,” said Brilmayer.

While Missouri might have a hard time moving forward with a lawsuit against China, Schmitt said there are workarounds. Schmitt said there's an exception for commercial activity, for example, and he alleges that labs and hospitals are commercial ventures.

He also counts the Communist Party as a non-state actor, which he said fortifies his legal argument.

Brilmayer said that if the case does move forward, or works its way up the appeals process, the U.S. State Department would normally be expected to weigh in, perhaps with a letter to the judge explaining its position on the case.

In the meantime, other Republicans are also moving to hold China, rather than U.S. officials, accountable for American coronavirus deaths and economic damage.

Last week, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley introduced legislation to strip China of its sovereign immunity.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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