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Examples of judicial overreaching

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The award for judicial overreaching is a competitive one, but this past week the clear winner was Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth for ordering the government of Iran to pay $247.5 million in actual and punitive damages for complicity in terrorism.

The judge was aided by a 1996 law that deserves an award for legislative overreaching, a congressional attempt to impose U.S. laws on and in other countries. The law itself is based on a flawed assumption: that terrorists and terrorism are driven by financial considerations, that suicide bombings will be deterred by the prospect of an adverse court judgment down the road.The damages were awarded after a two-day trial that was not a trial. The defendants, who included Iran's religious leader and its former president, were not present, nor were their representatives. The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations and do not recognize each other's courts.

The heart of the case is a tragedy. An American college student, doing a junior year abroad in Israel, was killed - murdered - in April 1995, when a suicide bomber broadsided her bus in a van.

The specifics of the case are an international legal quagmire. The bomber was a Palestinian, a member of the Syrian-based Islamic Jihad, and the killing took place in Gaza, a legal anomaly. Iran bankrolls the Islamic Jihad, but no evidence was introduced that Iran's leaders planned, endorsed or even knew of the bombing.

The judge awarded $22.5 million in actual damages to the Flatow family, whose grief and pain is understandable. Then the judge slapped Iran with $225 million in punitive damages, based on the highly suspect calculation that the figure was three times Iran's annual budget for terrorism.

The judgment is for all practical purposes unenforceable. Iran does have frozen assets here, but its foreign policy is unlikely to be swayed by the prospect of losing money it hasn't been able to touch for almost 20 years. And confiscation of assets tends to become mutual.

Whatever the merits of the case, the decision comes at a bad time diplomatically. Iran's moderate leader, Mohammed Khatami, has taken several positive steps at ending two decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility. He is opposed by a hard-line faction who will point to Lamberth's award as evidence that the United States remains an implacable foe of Iran.