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Supreme Court: Families of Marines Killed in Beirut Bombing May Hold Iran Accountable

By: Allan M. Siegel

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that victims of terror allegedly sponsored by Iran may recover almost $2 billion. The case arose from a lawsuit filed against the government of Iran by families of American military members killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing, which was carried out by Hezbollah suicide bombers. The Iranian government was alleged to have funded Hezbollah’s activities. The families’ claims were filed under 28 U.S. Code § 1605A – the terrorism exception to the jurisdictional immunity of foreign countries. Iran did not file an answer to the federal lawsuit and the families won a $2.67 billion default judgment.

Since winning the default judgment, the families have attempted to enforce the judgment upon Iranian government assets in the U.S. The collection effort proved difficult and the plaintiffs did not find Iranian government assets until 2008 when they located $1.75 billion held by Citibank for Banca UBAE, S. p. A, an Italian bank, which also held funds on behalf of the Iran central bank Bank Markazi. The $1.75 billion had already been frozen by the U.S. government as economic sanctions for funding terrorism operations.

In 2010, the families filed a claim in New York federal court seeking to collect on their judgment. Their lawsuit cited the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), which permits collection upon assets of a terrorist party. It was not clear whether the $1.75 billion in funds held by Citibank met the TRIA’s statutory definition of a terrorism party’s assets. So Congress stepped in and passed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (ITRSHRA), which clearly provided that the frozen assets were subject to collection efforts by the families of the Beirut bombing victims. Based on the new law and the TRIA, the New York federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiff families.

The Central Bank of Iran subsequently appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Bank argued that Congress violated separation of powers by passing a law that determined the outcome of pending litigation. On April 20, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress may pass laws dictating to the judicial branch how it ought to interpret a law that Congress passed, as long as that law does not dictate fact finding or an interpretation of the Constitution, which are the exclusive province of the judicial branch.

“Congress, our decisions make clear, may amend the law and make the change applicable to pending cases, even when the amendment is outcome determinative,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a 6-2 majority (Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor dissented).

The message from Peterson is clear: if you sponsor terrorism and have money or assets based in the United States, you can be held accountable. The case is Bank Markazi v. Deborah Peterson et al., case number 14-770.