Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was skeptical Wednesday of Congress’s attempt to give the victims of Iranian terrorism a leg up in their lawsuits against the regime.
On their face, Congress’s actions might not seem too controversial: For years, Iran had refused to pay court-ordered judgments to the American victims of bombings in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. So, when those victims found out that Iran had secretly stashed nearly $2 billion in a U.S. bank, Congress passed a law to help the victims claim that money as part of their lawsuit against Iran. President Obama signed it. And other than Iran, everyone was happy.
On Wednesday, however, Roberts expressed concern over how far Congress can venture into the judicial realm. If Congress can meddle in a specific lawsuit against Iran, he asked, what’s to stop it from trying to tell the Supreme Court how to rule on Obamacare?
He didn’t get an answer to that question that he found satisfactory, and his underlying concern about separation of powers was a critical thread throughout an hour of oral arguments in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, in which the Iranian central bank is arguing that Congress’s intervention violated the Constitution.
“You know, there are places in the world where courts function just the way our courts do, except every now and then, when there's a case that the strongman who runs the country is interested in because a crony is one of the parties or whatever, and he picks up the phone and he tells the court, ‘You decide this case this way. I don't care what you thought the law was, decide it this way,’” Roberts said. “I’m not sure I see what the difference is here.”