WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 30 years after 241 Marines died in a terrorist attack in Beirut, the Supreme Court on Wednesday weighed putting up a new roadblock for the victims' families who are trying to obtain nearly $2 billion in judgments against Iran.
Bank Markazi, Iran's central bank, is trying to stave off court orders that would allow families of victims of several attacks that courts have linked to Iran to be paid for their losses.
The Supreme Court is involved because the bank claims that Congress butted into the business of federal courts when it passed a law in 2012 that specifically directs that the banks' assets in the United States be turned over the families.
It was not clear from the hour-long arguments which side would prevail, but Chief Justice John Roberts aggressively questioned whether Congress impermissibly tried to dictate the outcome of the dispute.
"Their job is to pass laws; our job is to decide a case. When there's a dispute under one of the laws they pass, that's our job," Roberts said.
On the other side, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that Congress and the president, who signed the law, have broad authority when it comes to foreign affairs.
The case is before the court at a sensitive time in U.S.-Iranian relations. The countries recently concluded a deal that curbs Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
The arguments took place less than 24 hours after Tehran detained, then released, 10 U.S. Navy sailors who had drifted into Iranian territorial waters. House Republicans invoked the incident as they passed legislation that would give Congress more oversight of the nuclear agreement.
At the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Lamken, the Washington lawyer representing the bank, agreed that Congress has a lot of power, but he said it cannot take action limited to just one case. If the justices rule against the bank, Lamken said, the message will be, "If you want to win your case in court, don't hire a lawyer; hire a lobbyist."
But Theodore Olson, a former top official in the Bush Justice Department, urged the justices to finally bring an end to the families' long legal odyssey to win compensation for terror attacks with links to Iran. Olson said lawmakers acted well within their authority when they passed the 2012 law. In fact, Congress could do anything short of "directing an outcome of a specific case: A must win and B must lose," said Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died in the Sept. 11 attacks, which have no relation to the high court case.
More than 1,300 people are among the relatives of the victims of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 service members, and other attacks that were carried out by groups with links to Iran. The lead plaintiff is Deborah Peterson, whose brother, Lance Cpl. James C. Knipple, was killed in Beirut.
Congress has repeatedly changed the law in the past 20 years to make it easier for victims to sue over state-sponsored terrorism and federal courts have ruled for the victims. But Iran has refused to comply with the judgments, leading lawyers to hunt for Iranian assets in the United States.
Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress, as well as the Obama administration, are supporting the families in the case.
Even if the families lose at the Supreme Court, they still can press their claims under an earlier law and could benefit from a new fund created in the massive spending bill that Congress passed last month.
A decision in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, 14-770, is expected by late June.