WASHINGTON -- For a moment Wednesday, the three branches of the federal government seemed to line up in perfect harmony -- if only to show their support for victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism.
In a case that stood to alter the rules for the separation of powers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Barack Obama and Congress did not violate the Constitution when they passed a law favoring more than 1,000 victims and survivors of the Beirut barracks bombing and other terror plots linked to the Iranian government.
The statute, known as the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, was described by the justices as "unusual." It essentially directed courts to award billions in assets held by Iran in a U.S. bank to the victims, which years earlier had won court judgments for their pain and suffering.
Bank Markazi, Iran's central bank, sued to invalidate the law, complaining that the president and Congress overstepped their constitutional roles in telling courts how to rule "in connection with specific litigation" -- that is, the cases the victims originally brought against the Iranian government.
In a 6-to-2 decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court ruled for the victims -- and in the process, for its co-equal branches of government, which it said did not "transgress constraints" the Constitution placed on them.
"Congress acted comfortably within the political branches’ authority over foreign sovereign immunity and foreign-state assets," Ginsburg wrote in the Bank Markazi v. Peterson decision.
Ginsburg, looking to history and centuries-old precedents that asserted courts' independence from the political branches, noted there aren't many "restrictions" the Constitution places on lawmakers' ability to pass "retroactive legislation." Outside of those, almost anything goes.
"So yes ... Congress may indeed direct courts to apply newly enacted, outcome-altering legislation in pending civil cases," Ginsburg wrote. She added that victims had prevailed handily on the merits of their individual cases before Congress and the president enacted the law.
The law, Ginsburg explained, merely "serves to facilitate their ability to collect amounts due to them from assets of the judgment debtor" -- Iran's central bank. She wrote that the law was a "necessary and proper" exercise of the political branches' power over foreign affairs.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who during oral arguments appeared poised to play a pivotal role in the case, was outnumbered and relegated to a minority with only Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Sounding more or less resigned, Roberts appeared concerned the ruling would give Congress a kind of absolute power over the federal court system.
"Hereafter, with this Court’s seal of approval, Congress can unabashedly pick the winners and losers in particular pending cases," Roberts wrote. "Today’s decision will indeed become a blueprint for extensive expansion of the legislative power at the Judiciary’s expense."
Then came this kicker -- a line with a nod to James Madison in "The Federalist": The ruling will feed "Congress’s tendency to extend the sphere of its activity and draw all power into its impetuous vortex," Roberts said.
There may be some truth to that.