Among those included in the ruling are the family members of 241 American servicemen killed during the 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon
. A federal district court in Washington had found Iran liable for financing and sponsoring the attack, and a federal district court in Manhattan found that the victims could attach $1.75 billion in blocked Iranian assets to enforce their judgments.
In a 6-2 decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held that Congress did not impermissibly dictate the outcome of a specific case, and therefore did not violate separation of powers by passing a law to enforce terrorism judgments against Iran that made available $1.75 billion in assets of Bank Markazi (the Central Bank of Iran) that were found in a U.S. bank account.
The court stated that the Constitution affords Congress and the President plenary powers to conduct foreign affairs, including the disposition of blocked assets of Iran, a state-sponsor of terrorism, that are located in the United States.
"Exercise by Congress and the President of control over claims against foreign governments, as well as foreign government-owned property in the United States, is hardly a novelty," Ginsburg noted.
The ruling brings to an end a 15-year legal battle to hold Iran responsible for its role in the 1983 bombing, the single deadliest terrorist attack against the United States prior to 9/11. But the case also has important legal and policy implications.
First, the court's ruling sends a loud and clear message to Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism that they are not above the law and will be held accountable for supporting terrorism. Hopefully, the decision will have a deterrent effect on Iran, or at least cause Tehran to think twice about supporting terrorist activity in the future.
The reality is that while the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action may have lifted certain sanctions against Iran, the nuclear agreement has not altered Iran's status in the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism
Iran is therefore not immune from terrorism litigation, and unless it changes its behavior and stops supporting terrorist organizations, it is likely to be the target of more lawsuits for sponsoring acts of international terrorism that kill or seriously injure Americans. With this in mind, the Bank Markazi decision is likely to embolden other U.S. victims of terrorism to bring suit against Iran in the future.
Second, the Supreme Court's ruling could generate support for pending legislation that would allow the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia
for its alleged support of al Qaeda. The legislation, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, was passed in the Senate last Congress by a unanimous vote, but never received a vote in the House. In September, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Republican Sen. John Cornyn reintroduced the bill in the Senate, and Republican Congressman Peter King reintroduced it in the House. The narrowly drawn legislation applies to terrorist attacks committed within the United States.
Of course, the Bank Markazi ruling could stiffen Saudi Arabia's opposition to the legislation and further strain diplomatic relations between the United States and its traditional Middle East ally. But while President Barack Obama has indicated he would veto the bill
, arguing that it could prompt other countries to allow their nationals to sue the United States in retaliation, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have come out in favor of the bill
Indeed, the question of whether the victims of terrorism should be permitted to sue state sponsors of terrorism could prove to be an interesting issue on the presidential campaign trail. And while it is unclear at this point what role, if any, the Saudi government had in the events leading up to September 11, being seen to deny the families and other victims of terrorist attacks their day in court is unlikely to be popular with the American public.