The Senate will vote Wednesday on whether to override one of President Obama’s vetoes for the first time in his presidency.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) would, among other things, give families of Sept. 11 victims the right to sue Saudi Arabia for aiding or financing the terrorism attacks. The House is likely to take up the same vote by the end of this week.
Families of Sept. 11 victims have demanded a right to seek monetary compensation from Saudi Arabia since the attacks, and versions of this bill have been floating around the Capitol as far back as 2009 — but the legislation never reached the floor until this year.
It sailed through both chambers without any opposition, but did so without a formal tally of votes. Passage of JASTA was done by so-called “unanimous consent” in the Senate, and by voice vote in the House.
A vote to override a presidential veto will require members to go on record individually as a yes or no vote — and that might explain why many lawmakers in both chambers seem to just be getting started studying the details of the bill.
What does this bill do?
JASTA would allow a lawsuit against any country by any U.S. citizen who claims the country financed or otherwise aided and abetted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Liability would attach only if the plaintiff could show the country acted with knowledge in providing this support.
Congress already has allowed Americans to sue countries that have been designated as “state sponsors of terrorism,” but currently, that list includes only three countries — Iran, Syria and Sudan. The White House says that designation is assigned only after very careful review by national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials, and that such designations should not be left to private litigants and judges.
The concerns voiced by the White House, some lawmakers
There’s been talk about the principle of “sovereign immunity” and how this bill might erode that principle.
Under the principle of “sovereign immunity,” a country should remain immune from lawsuits in the courts of another country. It’s a long-held principle of international law. And although there are some very limited exceptions to that principle, some lawmakers and the White House believe JASTA creates a dangerously wide exception.
The fear is that other countries might reciprocate and enact laws that would drag U.S. government officials or members of our military into lawsuits in foreign courts under the theory that those people aided and abetted some injury abroad.
And to Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, that would expose the U.S. to tremendous liability.
“Let’s face it. We’re the greatest nation on earth. We have more involvements around the world than any country,” said Corker. “We’ve got assets deployed all around the world more than any country. So if sovereign immunity recedes, we’re the nation that is most exposed.”
In his veto message, President Obama said there could be lawsuits against the United States for “actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training.” However without merit these claims may be, the White House argues, they would still suck up resources and increase the country’s legal exposure.
Allowing Sept. 11 families a day in court
Supporters of the bill say it’s a little alarmist to think this bill is going to corrode the principle of sovereign immunity and invite a flood of retaliatory litigation against the U.S. They point out sovereign immunity is not absolute — there are already, after all, exceptions to it.
And most importantly, they argue, all JASTA ultimately does is give Sept. 11 victims a chance to be heard in court.
“The issue is fundamentally about, is whether someone would have the opportunity to raise their concerns in the judicial system. It’s not a judgment about how a case would come out,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a senior member of the Intelligence Committee. “It seems to me that it is appropriate — particularly in light of the families — that they should have a chance to raise their concerns in court. ”