Key senators push bill to allow 9/11 victims’ lawsuits

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By Pete Kasperowicz
November 19, 2011
TheHill.com

A bipartisan group of senators proposed legislation this week that would overturn a court interpretation of current law that has blocked a lawsuit brought by 9/11 victims against Saudi Arabia for supporting al Qaeda.

The bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to clarify that victims of terrorist acts in the U.S. can hold the foreign sponsors of those attacks responsible in U.S. courts. Co-sponsoring the bill are Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Schumer said the bill is needed because some U.S. courts have interpreted FSIA and ATA that Americans injured during the 9/11 attacks have no recourse against foreign states that should be held responsible. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York threw out a victims’ suit against Saudi Arabia in 2008, based on the argument that Saudi Arabia did not direct the 9/11 attacks, and that FSIA did not apply to this case.

But Schumer said this decision reflects an incorrect interpretation of FSIA and ATA, and is “contrary to the plain language” of those laws.

“[T]aken together, the FSIA and ATA were designed to enable terrorism victims to bring suit against foreign states and terror sponsors when they support terrorism against the United States,” Schumer said. “I am introducing this bill because I want the survivors of the 9/11 tragedy to have their day in court — and they were deprived of this by a court ruling that contorted the language and purpose of the FSIA and the ATA.”

The Executive Branch has traditionally opposed these sorts of bills because of the possibility that they would interfere with its conduct of foreign policy. But Schumer said this sort of argument should not stick against his bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism act (JASTA), because it would not prevent the administration from settling claims for redress through an executive agreement.

“This is an executive authority that has been recognized and utilized going back to the administration of George Washington, and nothing in JASTA interferes with it,” he said. “Nothing in this act would interfere with the execution of our foreign policy.”

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