Eric Schmitt Can’t Get His Ducks in a Row to Sue China

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's lawsuit against the Chinese government nears its two year mark, with many legal experts saying it has little chance of success. - DOYLE MURPHY
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's lawsuit against the Chinese government nears its two year mark, with many legal experts saying it has little chance of success.

In April, 2020 Eric Schmitt announced he was suing China over its actions in the early days of the pandemic. In a press release, the Missouri Attorney General’s office called it a “historical move.”

Yet recent court filings show that Schmitt’s suit has become bogged down in procedural issues. More than ten thousand dollars in taxpayer money is being used on legal services and fees – with more likely to come – for a suit that most legal experts say stands little chance of succeeding.

Though the Chinese government has been criticized for downplaying the severity of the outbreak in covid's early days and censoring medical professionals who spoke out, Schmitt has little chance of actually winning any damages from China or exposing wrongdoing on the Chinese government's part, say legal experts.

Yet costs are mounting. Schmitt’s lawsuit – filed in the federal court of the Eastern District of Missouri with Judge Stephen Limbaugh presiding – names nine defendants, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic Of China.

Serving summons has been particularly costly for Schmitt’s office – not to mention difficult.

Normally, a person being sued is served by someone like a local sheriff’s deputy. But when a state’s attorney general sues a government on the other side of the world, things get more complicated. Schmitt’s own office called the process “laborious and expensive” in a filing.

After announcing the lawsuit, the office paid New Jersey-based firm DGR Legal nearly $12,000 in translation, address verification and processing fees.

"We filed this action on behalf of all six million Missourians,” Attorney General spokesman Chris Nuelle tells the RFT, when asked what Missourians were getting for their money, “both to get to the bottom of China’s exact role in unleashing this pandemic on the world, and to hold China accountable for the untold economic devastation and loss of life that this pandemic has caused."

Yet many observers see it as a political stunt meant to help Schmitt stand out among a crowded Republican field to replace Roy Blunt in the US senate.

“Schmitt has definitely used his position as attorney general to file lawsuits that support his political platform and his political aspirations,” says Anita Manion, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It’s about publicity, showing where he stands, energizing the base.”

“There’s only one candidate who can be on the front page every day if he wants,” says former state senator Jeff Smith. “Mark McCloskey can’t recreate another BLM protest outside his house. The attorney general remains the one candidate who by virtue of his office has the ability to generate media almost at will.”

In September, Schmitt’s office attempted to serve the nine defendants under the Hague Convention, which outlines protocols for international law. But the process requires cooperation from the Chinese foreign ministry. In February 2021, they rejected Missouri’s summonses.

Schmitt’s office then obtained permission from Judge Limbaugh to serve three of the defendants, including the Communist Party of China, by email.

The summons prepared by DGR for the Communist Party of China was then emailed to [email protected], the email address for People’s Daily, the propaganda newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

In a May press release, Schmitt’s office requested the State Department waive consular fees on lawsuits filed against foreign entities. Right now, there is a fee of $2,275 per defendant on “foreign states and their subdivisions.”

Nuelle says those fees haven’t been waived, meaning Schmitt’s lawsuit could accrue another $13,650 in service charges. In case you’re doing the math, that’s $2,275 multiplied by the six defendants they didn't receive permission to serve via email.

In December, Schmitt's office filed a motion asking Limbaugh to issue a default judgment against the Chinese government; the attorney general was essentially asking that he be declared the victor by virtue of the Chinese government "not showing up" to court in Missouri, says a lawyer familiar with the case, who asked not to be identified.

The following month, Limbaugh declined to grant the default judgment, instead filing a memorandum calling Schmitt’s email summons attempts “dubious.”

“It is unclear,” Limbaugh wrote, “why emailing a newspaper that is purportedly the ‘mouthpiece’ of the Communist Party suffices as service on the Communist Party.”

Ironically, as the Republican senate primary heats up, Schmitt is being portrayed by his opponents as pro-China. An ad created by a political action committee representing Eric Greitens – one of Schmitt’s opponents – noted Schmitt’s support, as a state legislator, for facilitating trade with China, as well as a bill allowing Chinese firms to buy Missouri land.

Representative Billy Long calls him “Shanghai Schmitt.”

The lawyer who spoke to the RFT said that she didn’t think Schmitt’s lawsuit against China was particularly good for anyone.

“I don’t even think he believes he’s going to get to the truth with this lawsuit,” she says.

Adds Jeff Smith: “It’s a worthwhile endeavor to understand the origins of the pandemic. But whether that’s under the purview of Missouri’s attorney general and if our tax dollars are best spent funding a lawsuit whose odds of paying out any damages are infinitesimal, that’s a different matter."

Doyle Murphy contributed to this story.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWKrull

About The Author

Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times. Find him on Twitter @ryanwkrull
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