SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
These days it seems you can sue just about anybody and anything. The one place in the judicial system where it remains hard to take legal action is against individual countries. They're covered by what's known as sovereign immunity. This week, Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post reporter who was imprisoned by the Iranian government for 544 days, filed suit with his family against Iran for what they called irreparable harm due to torture and other cruel treatment. Now, this comes after Congress passed a law overriding President Obama's veto that permits the families of those killed in the attacks of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia for financing the hijackers. How do you go about suing a country? Stephen Vladeck is a professor of law at the University of Texas. He specializes in U.S. foreign relations law. Thanks very much for being with us, Professor.
STEPHEN VLADECK: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: So sovereign immunity, what does that mean?
VLADECK: It's the basic background principle that countries have special protection in both their own courts and the courts of their sister and, you know, brother countries around the world. And it basically requires individual countries to make exceptions before other countries can be brought into that country's courts.
SIMON: And that law is there for what reason?
VLADECK: So I think the idea is sort of twofold. First, that you don't necessarily want the courts of one country being the first movers when it comes to setting foreign policy. And so we prefer that disputes between sovereigns really be resolved at the diplomatic stage as opposed to the private civil litigation stage. And second, I think the reciprocity piece of it is a very important idea, that otherwise you'd have a race to the bottom where countries would hail each other into each other's courts. So it's all just to sort of protect and preserve friendly relations between countries that at least usually are on friendly terms with each other.
SIMON: I know we can't prejudge these things, but would the Iranian government have to provide testimony in a U.S. court?
VLADECK: Countries take different positions over how they litigate cases. Some just never show up. And so you'll have a default judgment entered against them. Some litigate these cases.
SIMON: (Unintelligible) Collecting it.
VLADECK: Right. But then the - and so the real question at the end of the day is not whether you can get a judgment against a foreign country but whether you can enforce it, whether you can actually collect the damages that a federal court might say you're entitled to.
SIMON: We're told about the case of Terry Anderson. He was held hostage in Lebanon. He received a sum that's reported to be in the neighborhood of $26 million, right?
VLADECK: That's right.
SIMON: When Terry Anderson won that judgment, he was also fortunate enough, though, to be suing at a time when the United States had a lot of Iranian assets locked up here.
VLADECK: Indeed. And so when the assets are here on U.S. soil, the question is not whether the federal courts have the power to seize them. They unquestionably do. The question is simply whether those assets are accessible to the court or whether they've already been frozen by the executive branch. And we've actually seen in the specific case of Iran Congress several times intercede to open up assets seized by the president to be used to satisfy judgments in these kinds of cases.
SIMON: Of course, the Rezaian case is being filed at a time when the United States is eager to get Iran to curtail its nuclear development and therefore might be less inclined to seize any assets.
VLADECK: Indeed. I mean, I think the issue that arises in cases like the Rezaian case is not whether the case will get to a judgment. It almost certainly will. The question is simply if he actually wins and obtains the money judgment, is the U.S. government going to have any interest in releasing some of the Iranian assets that they have already seized and frozen to satisfy that judgment?
SIMON: The 9/11 families can now sue Saudi Arabia. Reportedly, though, Congress has what amounts to veto override remorse.
VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, I think - the bill that Congress passed last week over President Obama's veto is, I think, a really interesting example of this phenomenon because, on the one hand, you have a very strong lobby pushing to open the courthouse doors. On the other hand, because of the U.S. government does not treat Saudi Arabia as a state sponsor of terrorism, it's actually unprecedented to allow these kinds of claims as a waiver of foreign sovereign immunity. That's where all the diplomatic relations concerns come from and where at least I think some of Congress' buyer's remorse comes from. So it's a very difficult tightrope to navigate. And so that's why the reciprocity concern is such a dominant and pervasive theme of debates over foreign sovereign immunity because the last thing that you want is a race to the bottom.
SIMON: Stephen Vladeck is a professor of law at UT, University of Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.
VLADECK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.