Work by Fairfield University assistant professor Debra M. Strauss, J.D. cited as authority in major terrorism case before federal court


Image: Debra StraussDebra M. Strauss, J.D., assistant professor of business law at Fairfield University's Charles F. Dolan School of Business, continues to make significant strides combating terrorism through the law. An article written by Dr. Strauss was recently cited numerous times by a federal judge in his ruling on a major terrorism case before the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. The case concerns litigation against Iran and the United States' new antiterrorism law, and has implications for compensating the victims of terroristic acts and their families.

Dr. Strauss has been a proponent of the use of civil lawsuits by victims against terrorist groups and state-sponsors of international terrorism, reasoning that draining terrorists financially or freezing their assets is an avenue for thwarting their criminal activities. Characterizing civil suits as a "non-military approach," she was inspired to pursue this use of the law after attending an Open VISIONS Forum lecture at Fairfield University featuring attorney Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He initiated civil lawsuits to go after and dry up the financial resources of the Ku Klux Klan, and Strauss pondered in the months after 9/11 whether there might be a way to do the same on the international front against terrorist groups. Her work has been instrumental both in helping plaintiffs pursue these cases and in the development of new legislation to facilitate these claims passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in January 2008.

Her most recent article in this area entitled, "Reaching Out to the International Community: Civil Lawsuits as the Common Ground in the Battle Against Terrorism," was published in the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law. The Honorable Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, quoted directly from the article on several pages of his decision regarding the case, In re Islamic Republic of Iran Terrorism Litigation. In this massive consolidated litigation against Iran, there are more than one thousand individual plaintiffs who have brought their cases against Iran for providing material support to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. As a result of these civil actions, Iran faces more than nine billion dollars in liability from court judgments that have not been able to be collected. "Chief Judge Lamberth put forth his decision comprehensively interpreting the new antiterrorism law and directly addressing President Obama and Congress, entreating them to change the law in this area with reform that would be more effective for the victims and long-term U.S. foreign policy," noted Dr. Strauss, a graduate of Yale Law School who teaches courses in International Law, and Business Law and Ethics.

In this monumental opinion intended to be a seminal case, Judge Lamberth repeatedly cites Dr. Strauss's work and turns to her by name as a scholar and expert in this area. In addition, her article was recently cited in a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the proposition that "Holding aiders and abettors of terrorism liable for their conduct is one of the several fronts on which the United States must fight the war against terrorism." The Supreme Court case, entitled Boim v. Salah, asks the nation's highest court to reverse a Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the liability of defendant Muhammad Salah for aiding and abetting Hamas' terrorism that led to the murder of David Boim, a 17-year-old American.

Dr. Strauss's article analyzed the new law - originally called the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (new 28 U.S.C. § 1605A of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act) - reasoning it will facilitate the collection of judgments for victims against terrorist states through U.S. subsidiary banks. As the judgments from these civil lawsuits build, she explained, the United States is on the way to combating terrorism through a non-military approach to compensate the victims of terrorism while depleting the funding for future terrorist acts. Dr. Strauss's article further proposes to extend this model to the international community as a unified financial approach. "Recognizing jurisdiction and enforcing these judgments at an international level would bring the community together with a common goal against terrorism," Dr. Strauss wrote. "In view of the eroding support for military action, international organizations and nations could find common ground in bolstering these civil lawsuits and thereby promoting the rule of law."

In his ruling, Judge Lamberth refers to families of soldiers who were killed or injured in the Beirut Marine Corps Barracks bombing, among other victims. The families of the Beirut victims are seeking $2.6 billion in Iranian assets awarded to them by a U.S. court. The judge wrote: "As Professor Strauss observes, 'Victims of terrorism and their families have praised the new law and voiced their intention to put it quickly to action.'"

The judge goes on to emphasize Dr. Strauss's view that a multilateral strategy focusing on both the freezing of assets and civil litigation against terrorist groups and states would serve as the most effective deterrent of international terrorism and would best ensure justice for terrorism victims.

In 2007, another of Dr. Strauss's articles was cited in a landmark federal case as the authority in interpreting Section 2337 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, allowing a civil lawsuit against Libya and Libyan officers by victims of the terrorist act that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This article, published in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, has been credited with shaping the law through which victims of terrorism now seek further redress.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on October 13, 2009

Vol. 42, No. 88