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Congress Paves the Way For Americans to Sue Foreign Governments

On September 28th, 2016, the House of Representatives overrode President Obama’s veto of a bill that allows people to sue foreign governments accused of directly aiding terrorists who commit acts on American soil. The House vote followed an override by the Senate, marking the first time Congress overrode an Obama veto.

What Does This New Law Mean?

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, opens the door to Americans suing other countries for damages caused by terrorism. It does not limit which countries can be sued, but the immediate impact is thought to be felt by families of 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia. The legal waters get murky when it comes to how these cases get through the justice system. JASTA lets the Secretary of State put cases on indefinite hold, so in theory any number of cases might never get off the ground. The bill also contains no provision for how money will be secured if a judge rules in the plaintiff’s favor and awards damages against a foreign nation.

president-obama-jasta-quoteArguments For JASTA

Lawmakers who participated in the override of the president’s veto say they are working on behalf of victims, who they believe should have the right to find justice after acts of terrorism. These members of Congress see diplomatic problems that may arise from the bill as the responsibility of the executive branch, while their own job is to pass laws based on what the people want.

Arguments Against JASTA

President Obama and several advisors argued that the law represents a diplomatic nightmare that hurts our relationships with countries such as Saudi Arabia, which long claimed to have no part in the 9/11 attacks. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also warned Congress that JASTA opens the door to other countries passing reciprocal bills that leave the United States open to lawsuits.

The Future of JASTA

Several members of Congress have already expressed a desire to narrow the law, for example by limiting it to just the acts committed on 9/11. Others are taking a wait and see attitude, and would consider changes should we see negative consequences from JASTA.