Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Court Says Detention Authority Violates First Amendment

Judge Katherine B. Forrest (SDNY) ruled last week that the detention authority in the National Defense Authorization Act likely violates free speech.  Judge Forrest granted the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction in Hedges v. Obama and thus enjoined enforcement of Section 1021.

The case is notable in that the government could easily have side-stepped the whole thing: It simply could have taken the position that the plaintiffs, based only on their affidavits and testimony, did not fall within Section 1021.  This would have taken away the plaintiffs' standing (as Judge Forrest noted) and undermined the suit.  (The government need not have said anything about whether the plaintiffs would have been covered by Section 1021 if additional evidence arose.)  But it refused, suggesting that it keeps open the possibility that Section 1021 could apply to a remarkably wide swath of individuals, notwithstanding the President's efforts to limit it upon signing the NDAA.  More on this below.

The ruling is the first against the controversial detention authority in the NDAA.  The section at issue, Section 1021, defines a detainable person broadly (and vaguely, as it turns out) and apparently authorizes indefinite detention.  The Section, titled Affirmation of Authority of the Armed Forces of the United States to Detain Covered Persons Pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force, provides:

(a) In General.  Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the [AUMF] includes the authority of the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.

(b) Covered Persons.  A covered person under this section is any person as follows

. . .

(2) A person who was part of or substantially supported al-qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

(c) Disposition Under the Law of War.  The disposition of a person under the law of war as described under subsection (a) may include the following:

(1) Detention under the law of war without trial until the end of hostilities authorized by the [AUMF].

. . .

(d) Construction.  Nothing in this section is intended to limit or expand the authority of the President or the scope of the [AUMF].

But President Obama, upon signing the NDAA, issued a signing statement that said that Section 1021 did nothing to existing government detention authority under the AUMF and that the Section was therefore unnecessary.  In short, according to the President, Section 1021 changed nothing.  As to indefinite detention, the President wrote: "I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.  Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation.  My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable laws."

Moreover, while the White House issued a policy directive that included procedures for detention under Section 1022 (relating to military custody of foreign al-Qaeda terrorists), it issued no such directive on Section 1021--further suggesting that, in its view, nothing changed.

A group of writers, reporters, and activists brought suit, claiming Section 1021 could be interpreted to include them based on their reporting and writing on terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and terrorist activities; that they feared detention under Section 1021; and that Section 1021 chilled their further speech.  They said that Section 1021 was overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment.

Judge Forrest agreed.  In a lenghty and careful ruling, she wrote that the plaintiffs had standing, and that Section 1021 likely violated the First Amendment based on its overbreadth and vagueness.  

The ruling was based as much on the govenrment's stubborn position that it couldn't rule out detaining the plaintiffs based on their affidavits and testimony as it was based on the law.  The government refused to say that the plaintiffs wouldn't be detained under Section 1021 based on their affidavits and testimony, even though it also said that the plaintiffs' fears of detention were unreasonable.  And in a remarkable set of exchanges, reproduced in the opinion (at pages 31 to 34), government lawyers were unable to define phrases like "substantially support" or "directly support," or to give examples, or to assure the court that these plaintiffs, based on their affidavits and testimony alone, would not be subject to detention under Section 1021.

Outside the government's inability to define terms, give examples, or say whether the plaintiffs would be detainable, the court was also concerned about the lack of mens rea in Section 1021--an authority that it viewed as criminal-like, because of the potential for physical detention.  The problem is that a person could violate Section 1021 without intending to, even without knowing.  This, it said in addition to the government's inability to define key terms, rendered the Section unconstitutionally vague, in violation of due process.  

The court said the government's position was strongest on the definition of "associated forces"--a phrase that the government said is rooted in the laws of war.  But even so, "that does not resolve plaintiffs' concerns since they each testified to activities with or involving individuals or organizations that are 'associated forces' as defined by the Government."  Op. at 55-56.  The plaintiffs had the better of the case on "substantially," "direct," and "support."

If the government maintains its positions, keeping its options fully wide open under Section 1021, it's hard to see how an appeals could could rule any differently in this case.

SDS

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Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Music, Opinion Analysis, Standing, War Powers | Permalink

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