Wednesday, April 20, 2016
The Supreme Court ruled today in Bank Markazi v. Peterson that Congress did not tread on the courts' territory in violation of the separation of powers by enacting a statute that ensured that the plaintiffs in an enforcement action would get the assets that they sought (and therefore win).
The ruling backs off the rule in United States v. Klein--that Congress can't legislate a rule of decision in a case--and thus gives somewhat wider berth to Congress (relative to Klein) to enact laws that impact currently pending cases. At the same time, however, the ruling reiterates familiar limits on Congress's authority over the judiciary.
This is the case in which over 1,000 victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism and their families filed in the Southern District of New York to enforce their monetary judgments against Iran--through assets owned by Bank Markazi, the Central Bank of Iran, held in a New York bank account--for sponsoring terrorism.
While this claim was pending, Congress passed a law saying that, if a court makes specific findings, "a financial asset . . . shall be subject to execution . . . in order to satisfy any judgment to the extent of any compensatory damages awarded against Iran for damages for personal injury or death caused by" certain acts of terrorism. The law goes on to define available assets as "the financial assets that are identified in and the subject of proceedings in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Peterson et al. v. Islamic Republic of Iran et al., Case No. 10 Civ. 4518 (BSJ) (GWG), that were restrained by restraining notices and levies secured by the plaintiffs in those proceedings."
In other words, the newly enacted law, 22 U.S.C. Sec. 8772, ensured that the plaintiffs in this case would get these assets, notwithstanding the Bank's defenses.
The Bank claimed that the law violated the separation of powers--in particular, that Congress overstepped by directing the outcome of a case, in violation of United States v. Klein.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion for all but Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor (and Justice Thomas, for a part of the opinion). She wrote that Congress may amend the law and apply the amendment to pending cases, even when the amendment is outcome determinative. She then said that's exactly what Congress did here: it wrote a law that covers all the various post-judgment execution claims that were consolidated in this case. She said it did not create a "one-case-only regime."
Justice Ginsburg also wrote that the law related to foreign policy--an area where the courts traditionally defer to the President and Congress. "The Executive has historically made case-specific sovereign-immunity determinations to which courts have deferred. Any exercise by Congress and the President of control over claims against foreign governments, as well as foreign-government-owned property in the United States, is hardly a novelty."
Along the way, Justice Ginsburg backed off on Klein. She wrote that Klein has been called "a deeply puzzling decision," and that "[m]ore recent decisions, however, have made it clear that Klein does not inhibit Congress from "amend[ing] applicable law." At the same time, she reiterated familiar limits: "Necessarily, [the courts' authority] blocks Congress from 'requir[ing] federal courts to exercise the judicial power in a manner that Article III forbids," "Congress, no doubt, 'may not usurp a court's power to interpret and apply the law to the [circumstances] before it," and "our decisions place off limits to Congress 'vest[ing] review of the decisions of Article III courts in officials of the Executive Branch.'" "Congress, we have also held, may not 'retroactively comman[d] the federal courts to reopen final judgments." Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissented. He argued, in short, "[n]o less than if it had passed a law saying 'respondents win,' Congress has decided this case by enacting a bespoke statute tailored to this case that resolves the parties' specific legal disputes to guarantee respondents victory"--and therefore violates the separation of powers.