U.S. and Cuba Sign Additional Agreements

This week the U.S. and Cuba have signed four additional agreements.[1]

On January 16 the two countries in Havana signed the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was discussed in a prior post.

On January 18 in Havana, the U.S. and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen cooperation in the field of maritime and aeronautical search and rescue by enhancing effectiveness and efficiency in assisting persons in distress and to act in furtherance of obligations under international law. A Cuban official noted that the accord is particularly important to conducting joint and continued efforts to find and protect people in danger, that the two countries have been collaborating on search and rescue efforts for over 20 years and that in 2014 they had established procedural and operational frameworks for emergency cases. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy, highlighted the importance of perfecting such efforts given the increase in authorized trade and the flow of travelers between both countries.

On January 18 the U.S. and Cuba joined with Mexico at the State Department in Washington, D.C. to sign a treaty to set territorial limits in contested Gulf of Mexico waters. The treaty covers the Eastern Gap of the Gulf of Mexico, an area believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. The three countries’ overlapping claims in the Eastern Gap had created what is known as a “Doughnut Hole.” Trilateral discussions begun in mid-2016 on the maritime territorial issue were concluded by the end of the year. Because it is a treaty, for the U.S. it must be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

On January 19 in Havana the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to help prevent the introduction and spread of quarantine pests, animal and plant disease agents through the exchange of scientific information, best practices for the prevention and control of plagues and emerging diseases, collaborative scientific projects, including the use of technology, research and surveillance, and the holding of events on specific aspects of animal and plant health. This MOU provides a specific framework for the cooperation in the field of animal and plant health, complementing the provisions of the MOU on cooperation in the field of agriculture and other related areas that was signed on March 21, 2016.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Sign Search and Rescue Agreement (Jan. 18, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Sign Maritime Boundary Treaty (Jan. 18, 2017); Reuters, United States and Cuba Complete Deals as Trump Era Set to Begin, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2017); Reuters, US, Mexico, Cuba Ready to Sign ‘Doughnut Hole” Deal in Gulf Waters, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2017), DeYoung, U.S.-Cuba sign torrent of agreements under the inauguration wire, Wash. Post (Jan. 18, 2017); Hernandez, Cuba and U.S. sign search and rescue agreement, Granma (Jan. 18, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and United States Signed Treaty on the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf in the Eastern Polygon of the Gulf of Mexico (Jan. 18, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and the United States sign Memorandum of understanding in the field of animal and plant health (Jan. 20, 2017).

Possible Amendments to the New Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) 

As reported in a prior post, on September 28, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) even though the Chair (Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN)) and Ranking Member (Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD)) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Diane Feinstein expressed deep reservations about the wisdom of this law.

Immediately after the adoption of this law, Senator Corker and others expressed desires to change the new law.[1] Let us look at these concerns and efforts to amend JASTA.

Certain Senators’ Concerns

Senator Corker said he thought the issues could be addressed in the “lame-duck” /Senator session of Congress after the November election and that possible fixes included limiting the bill’s scope just to the Sept. 11 attacks, changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill and establishing a tribunal of experts who ‘could first determine if there was culpability there.’”

Without specifics Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there could be “potential consequences” of JASTA that are “worth further discussing.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress might have to “fix” the legislation to protect U.S. troops in particular. Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate Majority Leader and now a lobbyist for the Saudis, said, “I do feel passionately this is a mistake for a variety of reasons, in terms of threats to troops, diplomats, sovereignty, there’s serious problems here. Hopefully we can find a way to change the tenor of this.”

 Saudi Arabia’s Reactions

On October 3 Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet released a statement criticizing the adoption of JASTA.[2] It said the new law was “a source of concern to the international community in which relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity, as this law came to weaken the immunity of the world guaranteed by the United Nations, its agencies and councils which were formed to preserve the legal sovereignty of all its member countries across the universe. Weakening this sovereign immunity will affect all countries, including the United States. [The cabinet] expressed hope that wisdom will prevail and that the U.S. Congress would take the necessary steps to avoid the bad and dangerous consequences that may result from the JASTA legislation.”

On October 20 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Afterwards the two of them held a joint announcement at the State Department.[3] With respect to JASTA, Kerry said:

  • We “did discuss [JASTA’s] very negative impact on the concept of sovereign immunity. And the interests of . . . [the U.S.] are at risk as a result of the law that was passed in Congress in the final days. And we discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11 but at the same time does not expose American troops and American partners and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of a lawsuit for those activities. Sovereign immunity is a longstanding, well-upheld standard of law, and unfortunately this legislation – unintentionally, I think – puts it at great risk and thereby puts our country at great risk. So we’re talking about ways to try to address that.”

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments about JASTA were the following:

  • “I . . . want to add my voice to what the Secretary said about the importance of sovereign immunities. Sovereign immunities have been a cardinal principle of the international legal order that was established after the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s. The objective is to bring order to the international system. And where sovereign immunities are diluted, the international system becomes chaotic, and no country, and no government, is able to conduct its official business without having to worry about lawsuits. The United States, as the country with the biggest footprint in the world, of course has the most to lose by this, because you have operations all the way from Japan to South America to the Pacific, and I think that is why the vast majority of countries have come out vehemently and very strongly against . . . JASTA . . . for its dilution of sovereign immunities. And there have been a number of countries that are looking at reciprocal measures, and if this issue takes hold, we will have chaos in the international order, and this is something that no country in the world wants.”

However, neither gentleman provided details about so-called “fixes for JASTA.

Moreover, there already are “9/11 lawsuits” brought by 9,000 plaintiffs against Saudi Arabia consolidated in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan that had been dismissed, but will be resurrected under JASTA. Already there is talk about potential discovery and other pre-trial activity in the cases. This includes plaintiffs’ efforts to reinstate Saudi Arabia as a defendant. And on September 30 a new Sept. 11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the widow and daughter of a Navy officer killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

However, Raj Bhala, a professor of international and comparative law at the University of Kansas Law School, opines that the “deck remains stacked against the plaintiffs” with their biggest challenge: persuading a court there is solid evidence of a direct Saudi government role in the 9/11 attacks.[4]

Other Reactions

On October 10 China’s Foreign Ministry said China opposes all forms of terrorism and supports the international community on anti-terrorism cooperation, but that such efforts should “respect international law and principles of international relations, including fundamental principles of nations’ sovereign equality.” Therefore, every country “should not put . . . [its] domestic laws above international law and should not link terrorism with any specific country, religion or ethnicity.” The Foreign Ministry also noted that China’s people and assets at home and around the world face a growing risk from terrorism, but it has a foreign policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs.[5]

Many other countries oppose JASTA. France considers that laws such as JASTA would lead to a “legal chaos” at the international level. Russia has slammed the legislation as undermining international law. Turkey views JASTA as a law against the principle of individual criminal responsibility for crimes and expects it would be reversed shortly. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry warned that JASTA could have a dire effect on US international relations.[6]

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said JASTA was an example of “legislative fecklessness.” Immediately after the bill’s passage, Republican congressional leaders talked about the need to “fix” the bill and tried to blame President Obama for the problems by falsely claiming he had not made a strong case against the bill. But the president had vetoed the bill, publicly articulated the reasons for the veto and personally and through Administration officials had warned congressional leaders about the adverse implications of the bill. Thus, a “’stupid bill’ that adversely affects American national interests is now law.”[7]

A New York Times editorial, agreeing with Professor Drezner, said that the adoption of the bill over a presidential veto, was a new example of congressional “craven incompetence” and that JASTA should be repealed. A Wall Street Journal editorial also called for repeal.[8]

Conclusion

The only specific suggestions of ways to “fix” JASTA that I have seen are Senator Corker’s. The idea of creating a new tribunal presumably to assess whether a specific state has sponsored or aided and abetted acts of terrorism in the U.S. sounds too complicated, but there are not enough details about such an idea to have a detailed response. The same is the case for his other suggestion about changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill. The idea of limiting the law to 9/11, however, might be a way to see how such a law works out in practice before it is expanded to include any other situation as the law now stands.

Instead, I offer the following initial suggestions for amending JASTA on the assumption that repeal is not currently feasible:

  1. Assign exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions under JASTA to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and require or suggest that all such cases be assigned to a designated District Judge. That will assist the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, the White House and foreign governments in monitoring any such actions and eliminate the risk of inconsistent decisions at the District Court level and at the level of the federal courts of appeal. There is no reason to have any other federal courts involved in such cases and absolutely no reason to have any state courts so involved.
  2. Make the U.S. Government a necessary party to any such civil action.
  3. There should be limitations on permissible pre-trial discovery in such cases. Here is one way to do so. After answers to any complaint in any such civil action have been served and filed and before any other proceedings in the case, require the U.S. Government to provide its opinion as to whether the foreign state in any such case has sponsored or aided and abetted any acts of terrorism in the U.S. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has not sponsored or aided and abetted any act of terrorism in the U.S., then the civil action should be dismissed. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the case should proceed to assess damages with appropriate discovery. If the U.S. Government states that it does not know whether the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the U.S. Government should propose a plan for discovery in the case to attempt to resolve that question as quickly and as inexpensively as possible with a prohibition of any discovery that is not included in such a plan.

Now we wait to see what bills will be introduced in Congress to amend JASTA.

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[1] Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers May change Sept. 11 Law After Rejecting Veto, N.Y. times (Sept. 30, 2016); Peterson & Lee, Congress Looks to Narrow Bill Allowing Terror Victims to Sue Foreign Governments, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Sept. 11 Law Weakens International Relations, Saudi Cabinet Says, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Saudi Press Agency, Press Release regarding JASTA (Oct. 4, 2016); Hubbard, Angered by 9/11 Victims Law, Saudis Rethink U.S. Alliance, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir After Their Meeting (Oct. 20, 2016) Reuters, U.S. Urges Houthis to Keep Ceasefire, Discusses JASTA With Saudi, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2016). No additional details about any proposed “fixes” to JASTA were provided in response to questions at the State Department’s October 21 Daily Press Briefing.

[4] Mazzetti, Claims of Saudi Role in 9/11 Appear Headed for Manhattan Court, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016); Bravin, Lawyers Move Quickly After Congress Enacts Bill Allowing Suits Against Saudi Arabia, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[5] Reuters, China Backs Sovereign Immunity After U.S. Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2016).

[6] Fotouh, JASTA: Real threats and hidden opportunities, Egypt Daily News (Oct. 24, 2016).

[7] Drezner, The unbearable idiocy of Congress, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2016).

[8] Editorial, Congress Has Itself to Blame for 9/11 Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2016); Editorial, Instant Senate Remorse, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

Enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) Over the Presidential Veto

As a previous post reported, from September 16, 2015, through September 9, 2016, the current Session of Congress considered and overwhelmingly adopted the Justice Against Terrorism Act (JASTA). Although neither chamber of Congress held hearings on JASTA this Session and voiced little opposition to the bill, objections to the bill were raised outside Congress, and on September 23, 2016, President Obama vetoed the bill, as was mentioned in a prior post. Thereafter Congress overrode the veto and JASTA became law, whose details were discussed in another previous post.

Now we will retreat in time and examine the president’s veto message and the congressional overriding of the veto. Another post will look at subsequent efforts to amend JASTA.

President Obama’s Veto Message

 On September 23, President Obama vetoed JASTA and returned the bill to Congress with a message stating the following reasons for the veto:[1]

  • “Enacting JASTA into law . . . would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. As drafted, JASTA would allow private litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil. This legislation would permit litigation against countries that have neither been designated by the executive branch as state sponsors of terrorism nor taken direct actions in the United States to carry out an attack here. The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why I am returning it without my approval.”
  • “First, JASTA threatens to reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism, by taking such matters out of the hands of national security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts.”
  • “Any indication that a foreign government played a role in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a matter of deep concern and merits a forceful, unified Federal Government response that considers the wide range of important and effective tools available. One of these tools is designating the foreign government in question as a state sponsor of terrorism, which carries with it a litany of repercussions, including the foreign government being stripped of its sovereign immunity before U.S. courts in certain terrorism-related cases and subjected to a range of sanctions. Given these serious consequences, state sponsor of terrorism designations are made only after national security, foreign policy, and intelligence professionals carefully review all available information to determine whether a country meets the criteria that the Congress established.”
  • “In contrast, JASTA departs from longstanding standards and practice under our Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and threatens to strip all foreign governments of immunity from judicial process in the United States based solely upon allegations by private litigants that a foreign government’s overseas conduct had some role or connection to a group or person that carried out a terrorist attack inside the United States. This would invite consequential decisions to be made based upon incomplete information and risk having different courts reaching different conclusions about the culpability of individual foreign governments and their role in terrorist activities directed against the United States — which is neither an effective nor a coordinated way for us to respond to indications that a foreign government might have been behind a terrorist attack.”
  • “Second, JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests. The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country, and sovereign immunity principles protect our Nation and its Armed Forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from foreign court proceedings. These principles also protect U.S. Government assets from attempted seizure by private litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.”
  • “Indeed, reciprocity plays a substantial role in foreign relations, and numerous other countries already have laws that allow for the adjustment of a foreign state’s immunities based on the treatment their governments receive in the courts of the other state. Enactment of JASTA could encourage foreign governments to act reciprocally and allow their domestic courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or U.S. officials — including our men and women in uniform — for allegedly causing injuries overseas via U.S. support to third parties. This could lead to suits against the United States or U.S. officials for actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training, even if the allegations at issue ultimately would be without merit. And if any of these litigants were to win judgments — based on foreign domestic laws as applied by foreign courts — they would begin to look to the assets of the U.S. Government held abroad to satisfy those judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for the United States.”
  • “Third, JASTA threatens to create complications in our relationships with even our closest partners. If JASTA were enacted, courts could potentially consider even minimal allegations accusing U.S. allies or partners of complicity in a particular terrorist attack in the United States to be sufficient to open the door to litigation and wide-ranging discovery against a foreign country — for example, the country where an individual who later committed a terrorist act traveled from or became radicalized. A number of our allies and partners have already contacted us with serious concerns about the bill. By exposing these allies and partners to this sort of litigation in U.S. courts, JASTA threatens to limit their cooperation on key national security issues, including counterterrorism initiatives, at a crucial time when we are trying to build coalitions, not create divisions.”
  • “The 9/11 attacks were the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, and they were met with an unprecedented U.S. Government response. The United States has taken robust and wide-ranging actions to provide justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and keep Americans safe, from providing financial compensation for victims and their families to conducting worldwide counterterrorism programs to bringing criminal charges against culpable individuals. I have continued and expanded upon these efforts, both to help victims of terrorism gain justice for the loss and suffering of their loved ones and to protect the United States from future attacks. The JASTA, however, does not contribute to these goals, does not enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and undermines core U.S. interests.”

Reactions to the Veto

Immediately after President Obama’s veto of JASTA, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress vowed to override the veto under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution requiring a vote of at least two-thirds of each chamber of the Congress to do so. On the sidelines both major presidential candidates (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) said that they would have signed the bill if they were president.

These vows were made despite the prior day’s testimony before a Senate committee by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opposing the bill on the ground that it could be a problem for the U.S. if another country was “to behave reciprocally towards the U.S.” And the Republican Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, amplified the military’s concerns and urged Republicans to study the bill’s consequences while announcing his intent to opposes the override.[2]

Not surprisingly immediately after this veto, Senator John Cornyn stated, “It’s disappointing the President chose to veto legislation unanimously passed by Congress and overwhelmingly supported by the American people. Even more disappointing is the President’s refusal to listen to the families of the victims taken from us on September 11th, who should have the chance to hold those behind the deadliest terrorist attack in American history accountable. I look forward to the opportunity for Congress to override the President’s veto, provide these families with the chance to seek the justice they deserve, and send a clear message that we will not tolerate those who finance terrorism in the United States.”[3]

On September 27 President Obama sent a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell (Rep., TN), the Majority Leader, and Harry Reid (Dem. NV), Minority Leader. The President said he was “fully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,″ but that the consequences of an override could be “devastating” by putting military and other U.S. officials overseas at risk. The bill’s enactment, he warned, “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.[4]

On September 28 Senators Cornyn and Shumer jointly wrote an op-ed article in USA Today urging Congress to override the veto because JASTA “would provide a legal avenue for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to seek justice in a court of law for the terrorist attacks that took the lives of their loved ones. And it would deter foreign entities from sponsoring terrorism in the future.” The article also rejected as untrue the argument by JASTA’s opponents “that the bill will subject U.S. diplomats and other government officials to a raft of potential lawsuits in foreign courts.”[5]

On the morning of September 28, the New York Times published an editorial opposing the threatened congressional override of the veto because “the bill complicates the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and could expose the American government, citizens and corporations to lawsuits abroad. Moreover, legal experts like Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law and Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School doubt that the legislation would actually achieve its goal.”[6]

Moreover, the Times editorial asserted that the “European Union has warned that if the bill becomes law, other countries could adopt similar legislation defining their own exemptions to sovereign immunity. Because no country is more engaged in the world than the United States — with military bases, drone operations, intelligence missions and training programs — the Obama administration fears that Americans could be subject to legal actions abroad.”

Nevertheless, later that same day (September 28) Congress overwhelmingly voted to override the presidential veto. The only vote against the override in the Senate was by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Harry Reid (Dem., NV). The vote in the House was 348 to override with only 59 opposed.[7] We will now look at the debate in both chambers.

U.S. Senate’s Overriding the Veto

In the Senate debate, Senators Richard Blumenthal (Dem., CT), John Cornyn (Rep., TX), Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA) and Chuck Schumer (Dem. NY) spoke in favor of overriding the veto and passing JASTA while Senators Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), the Committee’s Ranking Member, and Diane Feinstein (Dem., CA) offered qualified endorsements of an override. [8]

Generally these Senators argued that U.S. victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism needed the opportunity to assert their damage claims in U.S. courts against such sponsors and that JASTA would deter such sponsored terrorism. Senator Cornyn added that this “legislation has been pending since 2009, and we have worked through a number of Members’ concerns . . . in order to modify the legislation and build the consensus we now have achieved. . . . That means [JASTA] has been negotiated and hammered out over a long period of time.”[9]

Cornyn then offered this argument for rejection of the presidential veto message:

  • JASTA would not “create complications” with some of our close partners. It “only targets foreign governments that sponsor terrorist attacks on American soil. . . . The financing of terrorism in the [U.S.] is not behavior we should tolerate from any nation, allies included.”
  • Possible foreign laws like JASTA “applied reciprocally will open no . . . floodgates” of lawsuits against the U.S. or military members by foreign governments in foreign courts.
  • “JASTA is not a sweeping legislative overhaul that dramatically alters international law. It is an extension of law that has been on the [U.S.] books since 1976. . . . [For] 40 years our law has been replete with immunity exceptions that apply to conduct committed abroad. This bill just adds another exception.”

Senator Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that this Committee unanimously supported overriding the veto of JASTA. He also said it was “highly unlikely” that passage of the bill would result in “the Saudis . . .pulling their money out of U.S. securities. . . . But even if they did, there would be plenty of buyers for those securities. But more importantly, . . . [such an argument would send the message;] if you want to influence U.S. legislation, make sure to buy up U.S. debt, and then threaten to sell that debt any time the U.S. Congress does something you don’t like. We absolutely cannot be intimidated or bend to that type of threat.”

Senator Corker commented that he had “tremendous concerns about the sovereign immunity procedures that could be set in place by other countries as a result of this vote” and that it could have adverse consequences for the U.S. “standing in the world.” He was troubled by “the concerns [of] . . . the head of our Joint Chiefs” and of the President. He also thought it would be better “to establish some type of tribunal, where experts could come in and really identify what actually happened on discretionary decisions that took place within the country of Saudi Arabia” with respect to the pending 9/11 claims.

As a result, Senator Corker prepared a bipartisan letter to the Senate sponsors of JASTA (Senators Cornyn and Schumer).[10] It expressed concern about “potential unintended consequences that may result from . . . [JASTA] for the national security and foreign policy of the United States. If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the [U.S.] could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities. We would hope to work with you in a constructive manner to appropriately mitigate those unintended consequences.”

One of the signers of this letter and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), recognized “that there are risk factors in terms of how other countries may respond to the enactment of JASTA. [11] As a nation with hundreds of thousands of troops that serve abroad, not to mention multiple foreign bases and facilities, the United States of America is a country that benefits from sovereign immunity principles that protect our country and our country’s interests, its Armed Forces, government officials, and litigation in foreign courts. Therefore, there is a concern of unintended consequences, including irresponsible applications to U.S. international activities by other countries. While I have faith and confidence in the American legal system, the same faith does not necessarily extend to the fairness of legal systems of other countries that may claim they are taking similar actions against America when they are not. So [as the Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I will] follow closely how other countries respond and try to mitigate the risks of the [U.S.] abroad” and will “explore with my colleagues the possibility of whether we need or will need additional legislative action.”

Another signer of the letter, Senator Feinstein, expressed her “key concern relates to the exception to the immunity of foreign governments.”[12] “Proponents of this bill argue that the exception is narrow, that it applies only if a foreign nation, with ill intent, takes unlawful actions that cause an act of terrorism on our soil. But other nations that are strongly opposed to American actions abroad could respond by using the bill as an excuse to adopt laws that target our own government’s actions. A September 15 Washington Post editorial said it well: ‘It is not a far-fetched concern, given this country’s global use of intelligence agents, Special Operations forces and drones, all of which could be construed as state-sponsored `terrorism’ when convenient.’ Those of us on the Senate Intelligence Committee know that, if other countries respond to JASTA in this manner, it could jeopardize our government’s actions abroad. If that happens, it is likely that our government would be forced to defend against private lawsuits, which could pose a threat to our national security.” Therefore, she was interested in limiting JASTA to “the September 11 attacks” and to “those directly impacted by an attack–including individuals, their estates and property damage, rather than companies with only tangential connections.”

U.S. House of Representatives’ Overriding the Veto 

On the afternoon of September 28 the House voted to override the veto of JASTA by a vote of 348 (225 Republicans and 123 Democrats) to 77 (18 Republicans and 59 Democrats).[13]

The supporters of override were led by Representative Robert Goodlatte (Rep., VA), the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who asserted, “The changes JASTA makes to existing law are not dramatic, nor are they sweeping.. . .The President’s objections . . . have no basis under U.S. or international law.. . . Consistent with customary international law, JASTA, for terrorism cases, removes the current requirement that the entire tort occur within the United States and replaces it with a rule that only the physical injury or death must occur on U.S. soil.” Later in the debate he claimed (erroneously as explained in n.14) that his argument was supported by “Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Properties [which] would apply the territorial tort exception if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of the state exercising jurisdiction.”[14]

Others who supported the override and who spoke during the debate were Representatives Peter King (Rep., NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (Dem., TX), Leonard Lance (Rep., NJ), David Donovan (Rep., NY), Carolyn Maloney (Dem., NY) and Jerrold Nadler (Dem. FL).

Leading the opposition to the override were Representative M. “Mac” Thornberry (Rep., TX), the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI). Other opponents of override who spoke during the debate were Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (Dem., TX), David Jolly (Rep., FL), Betty McCollum (Dem., MN), Robert Scott (Dem., VA) and Earl Blumenauer (Dem., NY).

Thornberry expressed concern for the possible erosion of sovereign immunity, which is “one of the key protections that the military, diplomats, and intelligence community of the [U.S.] has around the world. Once that doctrine gets eroded, then there is less protection, and . . . the [U.S.], has more at stake in having our people protected than any other country because we have more people around the world than anyone else.” Thornberry also quoted from a letter to him from Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., General, U.S. Marine Corps. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: `Any legislation that risks reciprocal treatment by foreign governments would increase the vulnerability of U.S. Service members to foreign legal action while acting in an official capacity.” This letter and a letter urging defeat of the override from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter were inserted into the House record.

Conyers supported the President’s reasons for his veto. “First, the President stated that [the bill] could undermine the effectiveness of our Nation’s national security and counterterrorism efforts. For instance, other nations may become more reluctant to share sensitive intelligence in light of the greater risk that such information may be revealed in litigation.   Moreover, the President raised the concern that this legislation would effectively allow non-expert private litigants and courts, rather than national security and foreign policy experts, to determine key foreign and national security policy questions like which states are sponsors of terrorism.   Second, the President’s assertion that enactment of[the bill]may lead to retaliation by other countries against the [U.S.] given the breadth of our interests and the expansive reach of our global activities.   So while it seems likely at this juncture that [the bill] will be enacted over the President’s veto, I remain hopeful that we can continue to work toward the enactment of subsequent legislation to address the President’s concerns.”

Conyers also cited others who called for sustaining the President’s veto: Michael Mukasey, the former Attorney General under George W. Bush; Stephen Hadley, the former National Security Adviser for that President; Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; and Thomas Pickering, the former [U.S.] Ambassador to the United Nations.

Representative Scott said, “JASTA abrogates a core principle in international law–foreign sovereign immunity. There are already several exceptions to this immunity recognized by our Nation and others, but JASTA goes much further than any present exception or recognized practice of any national law…. One fundamental indication of fairness of legislation is not how it would work to our benefit, but what we would think if it were used against us. If the [U.S.] decides to allow our citizens to haul foreign nations into American courts, what would we think of other nations enacting legislation allowing their citizens to do the same thing to us? Obviously, we would not want to put our diplomats, military, and private companies at that risk.”

Scott also pointed out that “JASTA does not make clear how the evidence would be gathered to help build a credible case against a foreign nation. Would the plaintiffs be able to subpoena foreign officials? Or would the U.S. Department of State officials have to testify? Would . . . [the U.S.] be required to expose sensitive materials in order to help American citizens prove their case? Again, how would we feel about foreign judges and juries deciding whether or not the [U.S.] sponsored terrorism? There are also questions about how the judgment under JASTA would be enforced. The legislation does not address how a court would enforce the judgment. Could foreign assets be attached? How would this process work if other countries enacted similar legislation? Would U.S. assets all over the world be subject to attachment to satisfy the foreign jury verdicts?”

Jolly emphasized that “the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee [Representative Thornberry] have all issued statements against this legislation.”

White House Reaction to the Overriding of the Veto

On the same day as this Senate vote and before the House voted on the same bill later that day, White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, said, “I would venture to say that this is the single-most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983. You had at least one prominent Republican senator quoted today saying that . . . the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were not quite sure what the bill actually did.  And to have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is, in itself, embarrassing.  For those senators then to move forward in overriding the President’s veto that would prevent those negative consequences is an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people.”[15]

Furthermore, said the Press Secretary, “these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today.  You’ve got to give some credit to Harry Reid.  He showed some courage.  The same can’t be said for the other 96 members of the Senate who voted today.”

The same day President Obama on CNN said that a few lawmakers who backed the bill weren’t aware of its potential impact and that he wished Congress “had done what’s hard.” CIA Director John Brennan said he was concerned about how Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, would interpret the bill. He said the Saudis provide significant amounts of information to the U.S. to help foil extremist plots. “It would be an absolute shame if this legislation, in any way, influenced the Saudi willingness to continue to be among our best counterterrorism partners,” Brennan said.[16]

On September 29, after the House had voted and JASTA became law, Press Secretary Earnest added, “I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.  Within minutes of casting their vote to put that bill into law, you had members of the United States Senate — some 28 of them — write a letter expressing deep concern about the potential impact of the bill they just passed.  The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting for, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously when you had letters from President Bush’s attorney general and national security advisor warning about the consequences of the bill.  You had attorneys from our closest allies in Europe expressing their concerns about the impact of the bill.  You had a letter from some of America’s business leaders, including Chief Executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, warning about the potential economic consequences of the bill.  You had letters from the Director of the CIA, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief all warning about the potential impact of the bill.”[17]

Conclusion

As indicated above, certain Senators indicated their intent to pursue amendments to JASTA to remedy what they see as problems with the statute. This will be the subject of future posts.

============================================

[1] White House, Veto Message from the President—S.2040 (Sept. 23, 2016) Afterwards Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, discussed whether there was congressional opposition to overriding the veto and criticism of the bill from Saudi Arabia and “a lot of other countries, including the European Union. White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/26/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/27/16.

[2] Assoc. Press, Lawmakers Vow to Override Obama’s Veto of Sept. 11 bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2016).

[3] Cornyn, Cornyn Statement on President’s Veto of JASTA (Sept. 23, 2016).

[4] Demirjian & Ellperin, Congress overrides Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill, Wash, Post (Sept, 28, 2016).

[5] Cornyn, Cornyn Op-Ed: give 9/11 Families a Legal Avenue (Sept. 28, 2016).

[6] Editorial, The Risks of Sueing the Saudis for 9/11, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016)

[7] Steinhauer, Mazzetti & Davis, Congress Votes to Override Obama Veto on 9/11 Victims Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Eilpirin & Demirjian, Congress thwarts Obama on bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, Wash. Post (Sept. 28, 2016).

[8] Cong. Rec. S6166-73 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[9] The prior post about the initial passage of JASTA started with the 2015 introduction of the bill and did not attempt to cover earlier versions of the bill or the process referenced by Senator Cornyn. Comments about this earlier process would be much appreciated.

[10] This bipartisan letter was signed by 15 Democrat Senators (Bennet, Cardin, Carper, Coons, Feinstein, Heitkamp, Hirono, McCaskill, Merkley, Nelson, Reed, Schatz, Shaheen, Udall and Warner), 12 Republican Senators (Alexander, Coats, Corker, Cotton, Flake, Graham, McCain, Risch, Roberts, Rounds, Sullivan and Thune) and Independent Senator King.

[11] Cardin, Cardin Statement on JASTA Veto Vote (Sept. 28, 2016).

[12] Feinstein, Feinstein Statement on Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Sept. 28, 2016).

[13] Cong. Record H6023-32 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[14] The United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Property is certainly relevant to the issue of international law on the subject. Representative Thornberry, however, failed to quote the entirety of Article 12 of this treaty and thereby reached an erroneous conclusion that it supports JASTA. That Article states, “Unless otherwise agreed between the States concerned, a State cannot invoke immunity from jurisdiction before a court of another State which is otherwise competent in a proceeding which relates to pecuniary compensation for death or injury to the person, or damage to or loss of tangible property, caused by an act or omission which is alleged to be attributable to the State, if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of that other State and if the author of the act or omission was present in that territory at the time of the act or omission.” The portion in bold was not quoted by Thornberry.  Moreover, this treaty is not yet in force because its Article 30 requires 30 states to become parties thereto, and to date only 21 states have done so, and the U.S. has neither signed nor ratified this treaty.

[15] White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Fort Lee, Virginia 9/28/16.

[16] Assoc. Press, Congress Rebukes Obama, Overrides Veto of 9/11 Legislation, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Reuters, Congress Rejects Obama Veto, Saudi Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Sept, 28, 2016).

[17] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Education King (Sept. 29, 2016).

 

The Antiquated Constitutional Structure of the U.S. Senate 

This year’s U.S. election re-emphasizes, for this blogger, the antiquated nature of the U.S. Constitution, especially the U.S. Senate.

Alec MacGillis, a government and politics reporter for ProPublica and the author of “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” points out that Democratic voters are increasingly concentrated in certain cities and urban areas while the Constitution allocates two Senate seats to each state regardless of population. The juxtaposition of these phenomena “helps explain why the Democrats are perpetually struggling to hold a majority. The Democrats have long been at a disadvantage in the Senate, where the populous, urbanized states where Democrats prevail get the same two seats as the rural states where Republicans are stronger. The 20 states where Republicans hold both Senate seats have, on average, 5.2 million people each; the 16 states where the Democrats hold both seats average 7.9 million people. Put another way, winning Senate elections in states with a total of 126 million people has netted the Democrats eight fewer seats than the Republicans get from winning states with 104 million people.”[1]

Nevertheless, Democrats are seeing signs that they may gain control of the Senate this election.

However, Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, points out that this control may last only two years. The reason? In the next election in 2018, 25 of the 33 Senate seats up for election are currently held by Democrats, and five of these Democratic seats are in states that then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012 (and even Trump is likely to carry on this year’s election): Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia. Three other Democratic seats are far from “safe” seats:  Sen. Bill Nelson (Florida) Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin). The Republican seats up for election in 2018, on the other hand, look like difficult challenges for the Democrats.[2]

These consequences of the current constitutional structure of the U.S. Senate suggest, as argued in a prior post, “that the U.S. Senate in particular needs radical reform if we are to retain a bicameral national legislature. To require 60% of the Senators to agree in order to do almost anything [due to the filibuster rule,] for me, is outrageous. It should only be 51% for most issues. This deficiency is exacerbated by the fact that each state has two and only two Senators regardless of the state’s population. Yes, this was part of the original grand and anti-democratic compromise in the late 18th century when there were 13 states. But the expansion of the union to 50 states has made the Senate even more anti-democratic.” [3]

Since “I believe that it would not be wise to increase the size of the Senate to reflect the population of the states (like the allocation of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives) and that each state should continue to have two Senators in a bicameral upper house, I suggest for discussion that there be weighted voting in the Senate. Each Senator from Wyoming (the least populous state in 2010 with 564,000) would have 1 vote, for example, but each Senator from California (the most populous state in 2010 with 37,254,000) would have 66 votes (37254/564 = 66.05). This approach would produce a total Senate vote of 1,094 (total U.S. population in 2010 of 308,746,000 divided by 564,000 (population of Wyoming) = 547 x 2 = 1094). The weightings would be changed every 10 years with the new census population figures.”

Such changes would aid the U.S. government in addressing the many problems facing the nation, instead of the continuation of the gridlock that has helped to prevent progress on these many problems.

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[1] MacGillis, Go Midwest, Young Hipster, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2016).

[2] Cillizza, Even if Democrats Win the Senate in 2016, their majority is unlikely to endure, Wash. Post (Oct. 23, 2016).

[3] The Antiquated U.S. Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 28, 2012).

Pre-Veto Controversies Regarding the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)         

A prior post reviewed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) (S.2040) that was passed by Congress on September 28, 2016, with sufficient votes to override President Obama’s veto of the bill. Now we look at the pre-veto legislative history of JASTA and controversies over the bill.

Legislative History

S.2040 was introduced in the U.S. Senate on September 16, 2015, by Senator John Cornyn (Rep., TX) with 12 Republican and 12 Democrat cosponsors. Without any hearings on the bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 28, 2016, passed an amendment as a substitute for the original bill, and on February 3, 2016, the Committee Chair, Senator Charles Grassley (Rep., IA), reported the bill to the Senate without a written report.[1]

On May 17, 2016, the Senate unanimously passed the JASTA bill with limited debate.[2] On the Senate floor Senator Cornyn offered a substitute amendment and stated that the U.S. Code already had an exception to sovereign immunity for certain acts of terrorism [28 U.S.C. § 1605A], but “it does not extend to terrorist attacks on our homeland by countries and organizations that have not already been designated as state sponsors of terrorism. This [bill] makes some small changes in that legislation that first passed in 1976 to expand the scope of that [provision] to allow the families of the 9/11 tragedy to seek justice in our courts of law.” The bill has been limited to “injury in the United States.” The bill requires injuries caused by “acts of terrorism,” and excludes “acts of war.” Cornyn also discussed the secondary liability provision of the bill.[3]

Immediately following Cornyn that day, Senator Chuck Schumer (Dem., NY), a cosponsor of the bill, emphasized the bill’s provision allowing the Department of Justice to seek a stay of any lawsuit under this exception. Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, Senator Schumer issued a statement praising this action as correcting erroneous court decisions granting immunity to “foreign actors who finance and enable terrorism on a massive scale” and allowing “terrorism victims, like victims of the September 11th attacks [and of any other acts of terrorism on U.S. soil after 9/11] the opportunity to pursue [financial damage claims against] foreign states who sponsor terrorism in federal court.”[4]

On October 23, 2015, an identical companion bill (H.R.3815) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Peter King (Rep., NY) with 31 Republican and 30 Democrat cosponsors. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which did not hold any hearings on the bill. On September 9, 2016, the Senate companion bill (S.2040) was agreed to and passed by a voice vote in the House.[5]

 Pre-Veto Controversies Over JASTA

The Senate passage of JASTA, on May 17, 2016, was despite lobbying against the bill by Administration officials and warnings by the Saudi government that if the legislation passed, that country might begin selling off up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities and other assets in the U.S. before they faced the danger of being frozen by American courts.[6]

In the midst of this congressional consideration of JASTA, on July 15, 2016, the Senate/House Select Intelligence Committee published the previously classified 28 pages regarding possible connections between Saudi Arabia and 9/11 from the Committee’s “Report on Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.”

A journalist said that these 28 pages set forth “a wide-ranging catalog of meetings and suspicious coincidences. It details contacts between Saudi officials and some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, checks from Saudi royals to operatives in contact with the hijackers and the discovery of a telephone number in a Qaeda militant’s phone book that was traced to a corporation managing an Aspen, Colo., home of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington.” The 28-pages also said, ”It was not the task of this Joint Inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of any such alleged connections to the Saudi Government. . . [But the Committee found no evidence that the] “Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda.[7]

Some former September 11 Commission staff members, however, pointed out that the wording in the group’s final report did not rule out the possibility that lower ranking Saudi officials had assisted the hijackers.

On the same day (July 15, 2016) of the release of the 28-pages of the Senate report, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “This information, even as it’s now publicly available, does not change the assessment of the U.S. government [as stated in these 28 pages] that there’s no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda. . . . And the 9/11 Commission was able to draw on the information that’s been declassified today as they wrote their report.  They were able to do follow-up interviews and to further investigate those leads.  Those leads didn’t really turn up anything as it relates to specific evidence about the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funding al Qaeda.”[8]

Press Secretary Earnest also stated, “based on the analysis that’s been conducted by our lawyers here in the U.S. government, the way that this [proposed] law [JASTA] is written could open up U.S. companies and even potentially U.S. personnel to vulnerabilities when they’re engaged in actions or doing business or conducting official government work overseas. There is an important principle related to sovereign immunity.  And when you’re the most powerful country in the world, you’re invested in the idea of sovereign immunity, given how deeply the United States is involved in so many other countries.”

On September 9 (the same date as the House passage of JASTA) the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration had been lobbying against the bill for months and that according to Jack Goldsmith, a professor of law at Harvard and a former official in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, “Congress itself could have investigated lingering questions about 9/11, but instead is delegating those tasks to the unelected judiciary. The costs of the law will be borne by courts, which are an awkward place to ascertain Saudi responsibility for 9/11, and especially the president, who will have to deal with the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia and other nations.”

The Times also quoted Pierre Lellouche, a member of the French Parliament, who said he would pursue legislation that would permit French citizens to sue the United States with cause. “I have sympathy with the notion of hitting those countries which actively support terrorism.” But the American bill “will cause a legal revolution in international law with major political consequences.” Even the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee expressed some hesitancy over the bill. He said, “We were able to get some changes to make it less damaging to potential dangers over time. We as a nation have got more to lose on sovereignty issues than any other nation in the world. If the White House actually vetoes this, I think there will be whole levels of discussion.”[9]

Senator John Cornyn, the author of the bill, however, started a barrage of comments urging President Obama to sign the bill by saying on September 9, “the families of those lost in attacks like that on September 11th should have every means at their disposal to seek justice. . . . I hope the President will sign it into law.”  On the Senate floor on September 12 Cornyn said: “It’s important for us to send a message that that evil shall not prevail. . . . [The] victims [of 9/11] and their families still don’t have the ability to get justice from the people, including the governments, who helped fund those terrorist attacks. And that’s where the bill . . . [JASTA] comes into play because if this legislation is signed by the President, it will become the law of the land . . . to make sure that these families who are still grieving and still don’t have closure will be able to seek justice in a court of law against the people who killed their loved one on September 11th.” Cornyn on September 13 threatened an override of a presidential veto of the bill.[10]

President Obama, however, did not sign the bill into law. Instead, On September 23, he vetoed the bill as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] Library of Congress, THOMAS: S.2040 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act . Going back to 2009, earlier versions of this law were introduced, but I have not examined the history of those versions. If a reader of this post has done so, please elaborate in a comment to this post.

[2] Cong. Record S2845-48 (May 17, 2016); Mazzetti, Senate Passes Bill Exposing Saudi Arabia to 9/11 Legal Claims, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2016).

[3] U.S. Cong. Rec. S2845-2848 (May 17, 2016).

[4] Schumer, Schumer Announces Passage of Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Bill—Urges House to Quickly Pass Legislation Allowing American Families To Seek Justice After 9/11 Attacks (May 17, 2016); Schumer, Schumer Urges House To Swiftly Pass JASTA Bill; Law Would Allow Victims To Seek Justice for Terrorist Acts on U.S. Soil, Senator Says American Families Deserve Their Day in Court (Sept. 7, 2016).

[5] Cong. Record H5239-44 (Sept. 9, 2016); Library of Congress, THOMAS: H.R.3815 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.

[6] See n.2 supra.

[7] Mazzetti, In 9/11 Document, View of a Saudi Effort to Thwart U.S. Action on Al Queda, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016);    House/Senate Select Comm., 28 Pages of the 2002 Congressional Inquiry into the Sept. 2011 Attacks, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016).

[8] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest (July 15, 2016).

[9] Steinhauer, House Passes Bill Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia; White House Hints at Veto, N.Y. Times (Sept. 9, 2016).

[10] Cornyn, Cornyn Calls on President to sign 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 9, 2016);Cornyn, Cornyn: American People Support 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 12, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Don’t Keep 9/11 Families Waiting (Sept. 13, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn Presses White House to Act on 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 19, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Stop Stalling on 9/11 Bill (Sept. 20, 2016).

 

 

Presidential Nomination of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

 

Jeffrey DeLaurentis
Jeffrey DeLaurentis

On September 27 U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba. If the nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would be the first to fill that position in over 50 years.[1]

President Obama said, “Jeff’s leadership has been vital throughout the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and the appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries.” He “is already working with Cuba on issues that advance U.S. national interests, such as law enforcement, counternarcotics, environmental protection, combatting trafficking in persons, expanding commercial and agricultural opportunities, and cooperation in science and health.  He engages broadly with the Cuban people and expresses the United States’ strong support for universal values and human rights in Cuba.”[2]

Moreover, according to Obama, “Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government. He is exactly the type of person we want to represent the United States in Cuba, and we only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador.”

This nomination was supported by Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), who said, the nominee “is a career diplomat who is universally respected by his peers, and by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, for his intellect, his integrity, and his thoughtfulness. . . . We need an ambassador who knows Cuba, who is respected by the Cuban government, and who will stand up for U.S. interests and values. Jeff is that person.”[3]

Another supporter of the nomination, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), Sen. expects great difficulty in obtaining Senate confirmation of the nominee. He said, “Given the fight we had to go through just to approve our Mexican ambassador (Roberta Alexander) just because of her ties to the Cuba negotiations, I can just imagine what might be coming here.”[4]

Indeed, the prospects of the Republican-controlled Senate’s confirmation of this nomination in the remaining months of the Obama presidency, however, are not promising. Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observed, “”The committee was notified of the nomination [on September 27] but has not yet received the appropriate paperwork to begin its work. However, it is highly unlikely that an ambassador to Cuba would be approved in the lame-duck [session ending on December 31, 2016].”[5]

For example, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) said the nomination should not advance. “Just like releasing all terrorists from Guantánamo and sending U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Iranian regime, rewarding the Castro government with a U.S. ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the president that needs to be stopped. This nomination should go nowhere until the Castro regime makes significant and irreversible progress in the areas of human rights and political freedom for the Cuban people, and until longstanding concerns about the Cuban regime’s theft of property and crimes against American citizens are addressed.”[6]

Rubio’s opposition was anticipated. Indeed, a key Obama aide, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Benjamin Rhodes, said after the belated announcement of this nomination that the Administration did not want such opposition to an earlier nomination to distract the Administration from other U.S. priorities in pursuing normalization of affairs with Cuba, such as establishing diplomatic relations, ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as state sponsor of terrorism, the President’s March 2016 trip to the island and various bilateral meetings to work on various issues.[7]

In the meantime, Cuba welcomed the nomination while also complaining that President Obama has not done all he could do to loosen U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba.[8]

Since August 2014 DeLaurentis has served as the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Interests Section (and after July 2015 the U.S. Embassy) in Havana. He also served in the U.S. Interests Section in Havana as Consular Officer, 1991-93, and as Political-Economic Section Chief, 1999-2002. In his diplomatic career beginning in 1991 he has held many other important positions and holds the rank of ambassador.[9]

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[1] Davis, Obama Nominates First Ambassador to Cuba in Over 50 Years, N.Y. Times (Sept, (7, 2016); Reuters, Obama Names U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Setting Up Confirmation Fight, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2016); Assoc. Press, Obama Names Career Diplomat as US Ambassador to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2016); White House, Presidential Nominations Sent to Senate (Sept. 28, 2016).

[2] White House, President Obama Announces Another Key Administration Post (Sept. 27, 2016).

[3] Leahy, Statement on the Nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis (Sept. 28, 2016)  Leahy’s statement also contains a lengthy rebuttal of the opposition to the nomination voiced by Senator Marco Rubio.

[4] Schwartz, Obama Nominates First U.S. Ambassador to Cuba in 50 Years, W.S.J. (Sept. 27, 2016).

[5] Reuters, U.S. Senator: ‘Unlikely’ Cuba Ambassador Will Be Approved This Year, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016).

[6] Rubio, Rubio: President Obama’s Nomination of Ambassador to Castro Regime Should Go Nowhere (Sept. 27, 2016).

[7] Ordoñez & Torres, Did Marco Rubio scare the White House away from nominating an ambassador to Cuba? InCubaToday (Sept. 28, 2016).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Ambassador Nomination but Says Obama Can Do More, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016)

[9] U.S. Embassy to Cuba, Biography of DeLaurentis.

Wall Street Journal Publishes President Obama’s Plea for a Senate Hearing and Vote on Nomination of Merrick Garland to U.S. Supreme Court

On July 17 the Wall Street Journal, which usually is opposed to President Obama, published President Obama’s plea for a U.S. Senate hearing and vote on the President’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.[1] Here is what the President wrote.

“For more than 40 years, there has been an average of just over two months between a president’s nominating someone to the Supreme Court and that person’s receiving a hearing in Congress. It has now been more than four months since I nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—and Congress left town for a seven-week recess without giving him a hearing, let alone an up-or-down vote.”

“This is much more serious than your typical case of Washington dysfunction. And if we allow it to continue, the consequences of congressional inaction could weaken our most important institutions, erode public trust and undermine our democracy.”

“Every Supreme Court nominee since 1875 who hasn’t withdrawn from the process has received a hearing or a vote. Even when the nominee was controversial. Even when the Senate and the White House were held by different parties.”

“But Chief Judge Garland isn’t controversial. He has more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in our history. He is widely respected by people of both political parties as a man of experience, integrity and unimpeachable qualifications. The partisan decision of Senate Republicans to deny a hearing to a judge who has served his country with honor and dignity is not just an insult to a good man—it is an unprecedented escalation of the stakes. It threatens the very process by which we nominate judges, regardless of who our next president is. And it should concern every American who cares about the rule of law and upholding the institutions that make our democracy work.”

“Here’s why. Historically, when a president nominates a Supreme Court justice—regardless of when in the presidential term this occurs—the Senate is obligated to act. Senators are free to vote their conscience. But they vote. That’s their job.”

“If Republicans in the Senate refuse even to consider a nominee in the hopes of running out the clock until they can elect a president from their own party, so that he can nominate his own justice to the Supreme Court, then they will effectively nullify the ability of any president from the opposing party to make an appointment to the nation’s highest court. They would reduce the very functioning of the judicial branch of the government to another political leverage point.”

“We cannot allow the judicial confirmation process to descend into an endless cycle of political retaliation. There would be no path to fill a vacancy for the highest court in the land. The process would stall. Court backlogs would grow. An entire branch of government would be unable to fulfill its constitutional role. And some of the most important questions of our time would go unanswered.”

“This is troubling for two reasons. First, a functioning judiciary—at every level—is essential to the business of the nation. For example, last month, a deadlocked Supreme Court was unable to reach a decision on several major issues, leaving the law itself in limbo. Across the country, judicial vacancies are leaving some lower courts so overwhelmed they can barely make it through their dockets. Twenty-nine judicial emergencies have been declared by lower courts across the country. This has real implications for jurisprudence, real financial costs to the judicial system and real consequences in the lives of people awaiting the outcomes of those cases.”

“Second, treating the Supreme Court like a political football makes the American people more cynical about democracy. When the Supreme Court becomes a proxy for political parties, public confidence in the notion of an impartial, independent judiciary breaks down. And the resulting lack of trust can undermine the rule of law.”

“So here’s an idea. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could agree to give Chief Judge Garland a hearing when they return from their extended recess, while also committing to give every future qualified Supreme Court nominee a hearing and a vote within an established time frame. It’s a good idea that my predecessor, President George W. Bush, suggested during his time in office. This reasonable proposal would prevent the confirmation process from breaking down beyond repair, and help restore good faith between the two parties.”

“In my travels around the world as president, I have seen how hard democracy is—how it takes more than a proclamation or even an election. Democracies depend on the institutions we build, the rules upon which the nation is founded, and the traditions, customs and habits of heart that guide our behavior and ensure that political differences never override the founding ideals that bind us. And it is on us—all of us—to preserve and protect them.”

“Now we need Congress to act. We need senators to demonstrate that, once again, America has the capacity to rise above disagreements and maintain a fidelity to the values that, for 240 years, have made this extraordinary experiment a success. That’s what the American people deserve—and it’s what makes ours the greatest country the world has ever known.”

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[1] President Obama, Merrick Garland Deserves a Vote—For Democracy’s Sake, W.S.J. (July 17, 2016).