Victims of terrorist attacks that were backed by Iran, and members of their families, can collect nearly $2 billion in Iranian money held by a bank in New York, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling ends a long quest for compensation by more than 1,000 victims of terrorist attacks committed throughout the Middle East sponsored by Iran, including family members of 241 US Marines killed in a 1983 barracks bombing in Lebanon.
That attack was blamed on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran.
"The decision will bring long overdue relief to more than 1,000 victims of Iranian terror and their families, many of whom have waited for decades," said Theodore Olson of Washington, D.C., who argued the case for the families.
The victims earlier won the right to collect damages from Iran, but because the Iranian government refused to pay, they asked a federal court to let them seize Iranian assets held by Iran's central bank, Bank Markazi, in New York that were frozen by the Obama administration.
While that lawsuit was pending, the families in 2012 persuaded Congress to pass a law allowing them to seize the Iranian bank's money.
Lawyers for the bank claimed that Congress unconstitutionally directed the courts to reach a certain outcome, violating the separation of powers and international treaties.
But by a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court said Wednesday that Congress was well within its powers, because the law it passed applied to many lawsuits and claims, not just one, and because Congress has a role to play in foreign affairs.
"Not only will the victims of Iranian terrorism be compensated for their suffering, but Iran itself will now be held responsible for the deplorable acts of terrorism that it sponsors. We hope it also serves to meaningfully deter it from continuing to do the same but Congress, the administration and indeed the world community must not allow it the benefits of legitimacy until it ceases this malign behavior," said Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, offering an example of why they believed the court's decision was wrong.
Suppose, Roberts wrote, that your neighbor sues you, claiming you put your fence on his property. He has a letter from the previous owner of your home about where the property line is, but you have the official county map.
Imagine, he said, that while your case is pending, the state legislature passes a law that says for your case only, a letter from one neighbor to another is conclusive evidence.
"Who would you say decided your case: the legislature, which targeted your specific case and eliminated your specific defenses so as to ensure your neighbors victory, or the court?"
The dissenters said Congress did much the same here, violating the separation of powers.
Iran rejected the ruling on Thursday
The state IRNA news agency quoted the spokesman of Iran's foreign ministry, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, as saying that "such a verdict is a theft of the assets and properties of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
He added that Iran considers the U.S. government responsible for compensating any damages that Iran might incur from the verdict.