The Senate delivered a blow to President Barack Obama’s legacy Wednesday, voting 97-to-1 to override his veto of a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill authorizes victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and other acts of terrorism to sue sovereign states in U.S. courts, removing the benefit of immunity enjoyed by sovereign nations that is both a tradition of the Common Law and codified in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. To override a presidential veto, both houses of Congress must vote with two-thirds majorities.
Saudi Arabia is the target of this bill and the U.S. capital has been inundated with family members of those killed during 9/11 for the last two weeks.
Previously, lawsuits against Saudi Arabia have been dismissed, but with JASTA, the families have standing.
JASTA passed the Senate by a voice vote on May 17 and passed the House unanimously Sept. 23. That same day, President Obama vetoed the bill. In his veto message, the president said he had three reasons:
1. Lawsuits by private citizens could complicate American relationships outside of official channels
2. JASTA overturns the Common Law understanding that international relationships are conducted sovereign government to sovereign government, and
3. Allies of the United States are concerned that while cooperating with the U.S. government, they might be exposed to legal jeopardy by an generous reading of the statue.
“I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, who have suffered grievously” the president said in his veto message to Congress.
“I also have a deep appreciation of these families’ desire to pursue justice and am strongly committed to assisting them in their efforts,” he said.
“The United States has taken robust and wide-ranging actions to provide justice for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and keep Americans safe, from providing financial compensation for victims and their families to conducting worldwide counter terrorism programs to bringing criminal charges against culpable individuals,” the president said.
“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,” he concluded.
Only 15 presidents have gone their whole terms without a veto overriden. George Bush had four, Bill Clinton had two and Ronald Reagan had nine.
The lone vote to sustain the veto was cast by retiring minority leader, Harry Reid (D.-Nev.). Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Tim Kaine of Virginia did not vote.