Law Review: Critical juncture for 9/11 lawsuit against Saudis
By Chris Mondics
Inquirer Staff Writer
At the moment the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed at 10:28 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Sharon Premoli was scrambling up an escalator from the below-ground concourse toward the street with dozens of other office workers in a desperate bid to escape.
She looked behind her and saw two things that are burned forever in her memory: A human chain of evacuees riding the escalator and a boiling cloud of dust and debris racing toward them.
The force of that swirling storm picked her up and threw her into nearby storefront. After she awoke, she said, she soon realized she was lying on the lifeless body of a man and that she was covered with his blood.
"I remember taking my nails and scraping my tongue to remove the debris from my mouth," said Premoli, at the time a vice president for development with a financial services software company based in the North Tower. "I tried to get up and I realized I was lying on the body, and I am profoundly haunted by that."
Strip away all the arcana and legal angels dancing on heads of pins, and Premoli is the human face of litigation alleging Saudi Arabia financed the 9/11 hijackers.
She is one of 6,000 World Trade Center victims and their families who have charged in lawsuits that the government of Saudi Arabia or its officials funded Islamic charities that in turn helped finance the 9/11 attacks. The Saudis did so even as U.S. government officials warned that their money was ending up in the wrong hands, the lawsuit charges.
The case is likely to reach a critical juncture this month when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear arguments on Saudi Arabia's legal exposure.
The firm leading the appeal of lower court rulings dismissing Saudi Arabia as a defendant is Cozen O'Connor of Center City. It is representing insurers that suffered damages at ground zero along with appellate lawyers from the Washington office of Sidley Austin. Premoli's firm is Motley Rice, a leading plaintiffs' firm based in South Carolina that came to prominence, and significant wealth, in the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.
"All we are asking for is our day in court," said Premoli, who has moved to Vermont and now works as a consultant.
It seems like a simple premise, in fact the very pillar of the American civil justice system.
Yet by law and tradition, the United States government has long made such lawsuits against foreign governments excruciatingly difficult.
The hurdle for the plaintiffs, both insurers and individual victims, isn't simply facts and law, but also the political dimensions.
Saudi Arabia is one of the United States' most important allies in the Middle East. It has been a forward staging area for the U.S. military, deemed an important counterweight to Iran's regional ambitions, seen as a huge source of energy, and a very big purchaser of American goods and services.
U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed May 29, said political questions lie at the heart of laws governing lawsuits against foreign governments.
And she emphatically urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case. Kagan asserted that there were no significant unresolved issues of law, the baseline standard for Supreme Court review, that would compel the high court to take the case.
Yet, if the defendants in this case were U.S. citizens, it is possible that the litigation would have been settled long ago.
The case includes uncontroverted information that Saudi government supported charities suspected by U.S. intelligence agencies of funneling funds to al-Qaeda as it grew from a regional threat to a pivotal player in the Balkans conflicts in recent years and a huge source of international terrorism.
Two delegations of U.S. officials traveled to Riyadh, one in 1999 and the other a year later, giving the Saudis a list of suspect charities, banks, money exchanges and terrorism financiers. According to senior American government officials, the Saudis did nothing.
Kagan's May 29 brief, representing the opinion of the Obama administration, was significant because the Supreme Court in most cases follows the solicitor general's lead.
But not always.
One threshold requirement for Supreme Court review is whether the law on a given subject is unsettled, and it is conceivable that the court may make that call in this case. That is because two separate appellate rulings holding foreign governments responsible for killings in the United States seem to conflict with another appellate court ruling last year throwing out the lawsuit against Saudi Arabia.
The plaintiffs say those decisions make clear that foreign governments, even strong allies of the U.S., can be sued. And, they maintain, that is the only way 9/11 victims will achieve justice.
"Why would the Obama administration give less weight to the principles of justice, transparency, and security and more to the pleadings of a foreign government?" asked Tom Burnett Sr., whose son, Tom Jr., died when United Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.
He added of Kagan's brief in the case, "It strikes a blow against the public's right to know who financed and supported" the 9/11 attacks.