Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Judge James S. Gwin (D.D.C.) ruled this week in Doe v. Rumsfeld that a U.S. citizen's Bivens suit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can move forward beyond the pleadings. In so ruling, Judge Gwin also flatly rejected some of the kinds of claims we've grown accustomed to by the government in cases arising out of its anti-terrorism programs--most especially a separation-of-powers claim that the courts have no business poking their noses in foreign affairs and national security.
The ruling comes on Rumsfeld's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint. The plaintiff, a U.S. citizen and civilian employee once deployed with a Marine intelligence unit in Iraq, alleged that Rumsfeld authorized his torture at overseas prisons operated by the United States and denied him fair process to challenge his designation and detention. He brought a Bivens claim for violations of substantive due process, procedural due process, and access to the courts and sought monetary damages.
Rumsfeld argued that the plaintiff's claim amounted to an unwarranted expansion of Bivens--that Bivens did not contemplate this kind of monetary damages claim, and that special factors counseled against recognizing the plaintiff's Bivens claim here--in particular, the separation-of-powers argument that this case raised foreign affairs, national security, and war-time issues uniquely within the bailiwick of the political branches, and that the courts have no expertise in these areas.
The court disagreed. Judge Gwin cited the Supreme Court's relatively recent and not-so-recent forays into foreign affairs, national security, and war-time issues--cases in which the government made arguments very similar to those Rumsfeld made here--and ruled that courts do, in fact, sometimes get involved in these issues. Moreover, Judge Gwin noted that the plaintiff was detained on his way out of Iraq, after he left the field of battle, when he could no longer offer low-level aid to insurgents (as the government alleged). Judge Gwin also rejected Rusmfeld's related "real world consequences" of allowing a Bivens remedy here, that the threat of liability would impede military decisionmaking; that proceeding with the case would involve sensitive information, distracting discovery, and testimony by soldiers that would disrupt the military's efforts; and that the action would "embroil the judiciary in war-related decisions" that are complicated to litigate.
Judge Gwin also rejected Rumsfeld's qualified immunity defense. Judge Gwin wrote that the plaintiff pleaded sufficient facts to show that Rumsfeld approved of policies that led to his torture, in violation of substantive due process. (He was careful to write that this was not a respondeat superior claim in violation of Ashcroft v. Iqbal. Instead, it was a direct claim for authorizing torture.) But Judge Gwin wrote that the plaintiff did not plead sufficient facts to show that Rumsfeld directed his shoddy process in violation of procedural due process and the right of access to the judiciary. He thus dismissed these two claims.
The ruling means that the plaintiff jumped one of his most significant hurdles--getting past the pleadings on his torture claim against Rumsfeld--especially after the Supreme Court clarified the high pleading standard in Iqbal and especially given a very recent ruling by the D.C. Circuit in a very similar case. Just over a month ago, the D.C. Circuit dismissed a Bivens claim against Rumsfeld for torture by an alien detained overseas. Key to the D.C. Circuit's ruling in Arkan v. Rumsfeld was that it wasn't clearly established at the time that the Fifth and Eighth Amendments applied to aliens detained abroad (not our case). But maybe just as key--and more relevant to Doe--the court ruled that prudential considerations--that cases like this against military officials would disrupt the war effort, just like Rumsfeld's argument in Doe--counselled against extending a Bivens remedy.
If the D.C. Circuit applies this same prudential considerations analysis to Doe, this case won't go far.