WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Supreme Court was torn Wednesday over how to help victims of terrorism recover financial damages from Iran without letting Congress dictate that result to an independent judiciary.
With some $2 billion in assets controlled by Iran in a U.S. bank hanging in the balance for survivors of the 1983 bombing of a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and other terrorist attacks, some justices balked at rubber-stamping a 2012 law aimed at freeing up the money.
It appeared the court would find a way to rule in favor of the American victims — the families of those killed in the attacks and others who were injured. But the result could be an acknowledgement that Congress can pass laws that decide lawsuits.
Chief Justice John Roberts likened the 2012 law, which said hundreds of plaintiffs should gain access to the money despite ongoing court action, to Congress dictating the results of every case involving President Barack Obama's health care law, or a foreign dictator controlling a country's judiciary.
"I suppose this applied to us as well, right?" Roberts said. "Congress can tell us how to rule on cases pending before us?"
A slim majority of justices noted, however, that Congress frequently passes laws with individualized effects, such as providing funds for a particular bridge or helping a specific person. That makes it likely that victims of terror attacks for which courts already have found Iran responsible will win compensation.
"You think the issue here is the protection of the judiciary, rather than providing a certain element of equal treatment for the people who are the litigants in the case?" Justice Samuel Alito asked Jeffrey Lamken, the lawyer representing Iran's central bank. "I would think it would be the opposite."
The debate brought back to life the deadliest act of terrorism against American citizens prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — the pre-dawn truck bombing of the Marine Corps barracks by Hezbollah, which courts later determined came at Iran's direction.
The lengthy effort to collect damages from Iran involves other terrorist attacks, including the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 servicemembers and the 2001 suicide bombing of a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem that killed a New Jersey woman and 14 others. But the Beirut bombing is the case's central feature.
Among those who have waged a nearly 15-year legal battle for compensation are relatives of 173 of the 241 servicemembers killed in the 1983 bombing, as well as the lucky few who survived.
Paul Rivers was 20 at the time. Now 53 and working for the Justice Department — which has filed a brief in support of the victims — Rivers was among a few dozen Marines who survived the attack. He spent weeks recovering from head, back and leg injuries in Germany and North Carolina.
"We have been through a lot of ups and downs," Rivers says of the legal battle. "You tell your story over and over again, and it hurts every time you tell it.
"I'm more concerned with the family members of my friends who have passed on, and the guys who lost arms and legs," he says, noting that some plaintiffs have died while the case has been tied up in court. "These parents will never see justice for their kids."
The lead plaintiff is Deborah Peterson, whose brother, Lance Cpl. James Knipple, was killed in Beirut. She filed the wrongful-death case in 2001 — a month after the 9/11 attacks.
In the years since the attack, Congress and Obama entered the battle in an effort to get Iran to pay up. In doing so, Iran's Bank Markazi argued, they violated the Constitution's separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
If that's allowed, Lamken argued, the lesson would be "if you want to win your case in court, don't hire a lawyer — hire a lobbyist."
But lawyers for 19 groups of victims, representing more than 1,000 claims for damages, argued that it's legal for Congress to pass laws affecting ongoing litigation. The Supreme Court, they said, has upheld laws aimed at court action concerning particular bridges and forests; on matters of foreign relations, the power is all the more important.
"This is the power of the president and Congress, working together," said Theodore Olson, former U.S. solicitor general representing the largest group of victims. "Congress passed the statute. The president signed the statute. The president blocked the assets."
Regardless of the high court's decision, 68 families or representatives of Beirut victims won't collect any money because they are not involved in the case. Some of them have initiated separate court actions, indicating the effort to get Iran to pay up will continue for years to come.
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