September 28, 2016

Floor Speech on the Veto Override of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)

Mr. President, I take this time to speak about the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, better known as JASTA.

I am going to support the veto override, but it is not without concern for the potential unintended consequences. I have come to the conclusion that the risk of shielding the perpetrators of terrorism from justice outweighs the risks on how other countries might respond to and perhaps compromise U.S. interests.

Fifteen years have passed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but in my home State of Maryland and across the country, the pain caused by the events of that terrible day is still very real. The 9/11 attacks were a national tragedy for the United States, but we were personally devastated for fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and children in Maryland and throughout the country. The 9/11 victims and their families deserve meaningful relief, and I cannot support putting obstacles in the way of victims of terrorism seeking justice.

I understand that this legislation may have an effect on long-held sovereign immunity principles, and I share some of those concerns that the President has articulated in his veto message. I share the President's view about the importance of upholding sovereign immunity to the extent that we can and to the extent that it makes sense, but the principles of sovereign immunity were put in place at a time when acts of international terrorism were not as common. Exceptions to sovereign immunity have grown over time as times have changed.

In today's world, it is my view that we must make sure that the international community understands that there is a clear distinction between those who oppose terrorism and those who sponsor terrorism. Those who commit or support terrorist acts in the United States should face the full weight of our justice system.

JASTA's intended purpose is to create a tort exception that allows victims and their families to seek justice for acts of international terrorism in the United States that are caused by terrorist torts of a foreign state or its officials. Terrorism victims and their families in the United States should be able to have their day in court. We cannot, in good conscience, close the courthouse door to those families who suffered unimaginable losses.

I have confidence in the American jurisprudence system and that we will get this right in order to respect the lawful acts of governments but also to hold those who sponsor terrorism accountable under our system of justice.

The legislation restricts the application of this exception. It only applies to acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. It establishes a standard that is greater than negligence in order to be able to have an actionable claim. There is an ability for the government to stay the proceedings to negotiate a settlement. So the U.S. Government can intercede. I think these exceptions were put in and negotiated in order to try to deal with some of the legitimate concerns that were initially raised.

As ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I recognize that there are risk factors in terms of how other countries may respond to the enactment of JASTA. 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 we need to follow closely how other countries respond and try to mitigate the risks of the United States abroad.

In my role as the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I intend to do just that. I will seek to work with my colleagues to try to mitigate these risks, and I similarly support the efforts of the State Department and Department of Defense to mitigate any risks to our diplomacy, assets, and troops abroad that may be caused by the enactment of JASTA.

I intend to explore with my colleagues the possibility of whether we need or will need additional legislative action. Such additional legislation would allow justice for family members of the victims of the 9/11 attack while ameliorating some of the potential adverse consequences of JASTA.

Near my Baltimore office in the Inner Harbor of Maryland, there has been created a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Inspired by an artifact of the New York World Trade Center, the memorial consists of three 22-foot-long twisted and torn amalgamated steel columns from the Twin Towers. The memorial provides a place for contemplation and a site to remember and reflect upon the events of September 11, 2001, while paying tribute to the 69 Marylanders who lost their lives that day. Each year on September 11, Baltimore's World Trade Center will act as a sundial to mark the chronological inscriptions of the events of that tragic day. Today we hold close in our hearts and prayers those Marylanders who died on that day, as well as the families and friends whose lives have been altered forever.

There are no actions we can take to sufficiently heal the pain and suffering so many thousands of Americans carry with them 15 years after that fateful September day, but our constituents and fellow citizens are asking for a path to justice. This legislation creates that path, and having weighed both sides carefully, I am compelled to uphold it.