ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Self Promotion: Telman on the Totten Doctrine

Lincoln I have floated my ideas about Totten on this blog before here and here.  My students booed and hissed when I scolded Honest Abe for having breached his promise to pay William Lloyd for espionage services provided during the Civil War.  "Too soon," they howled.  Undeterred, I have developed my ideas about Totten in a new article, Intolerable Abuses: Rendition for Torture and the State Secrets Privilege, now available for dowload on SSRN.  The discussion of the Totten doctrine takes up pages 15-45 of the draft.  

That part explores the ambiguities of the case and decries its deployment in the state secrets privilege context in cases that do not involve contractual claims.  The case is ambiguous because in the space of a two page opinion, the Supreme Court gives numerous reasons for refusing to enforce the government's alleged promise to Mr. Lloyd.  Perhaps there was an implied promise of secrecy.  Perhaps public policy forbids the disclosure and thus the enforcement of such a policy.  Perhaps there is some sort of evidentiary privilege that prevents the claim from going forward, but if so, its operation is unlike that of any other evidentiary privilege.  And then in the end, what is the Totten doctrine?  Is it simply the application of one of the above-mentioned contracts or evidentiary doctrines or is it a principle of non-justiciability?

The discussion of Totten takes up about 1/3 of the piece.  Here is the abstract for the whole thing:

In Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, issued a 6–5 opinion dismissing a complaint brought by five men claiming to have been victims of the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program, alleged to involve international kidnapping and torture at foreign facilities. Procedurally required to accept plaintiffs’ allegations as true, the court nonetheless dismissed the complaint before discovery had begun based on the state secrets privilege and the Totten doctrine, finding that the very subject matter of plaintiffs’ complaint is a state secret and that the defendant corporation could not defend itself without evidence subject to the privilege. This Article contends that courts should almost never dismiss suits based on the state secrets privilege and should never do so in a case like Jeppesen Dataplan, in which plaintiffs did not need discovery to make out their prima facie case alleging torts by the government or its contractors.

While much has been written on the state secrets privilege since 9/11, this Article focuses on the role of the Totten doctrine in transforming the state secrets privilege into something like a government immunity doctrine. The Article first argues that Totten was wrongly decided because it is overprotective of state secrecy and requires dismissal with prejudice of suits that would more appropriately be dismissed without prejudice, subject to re-filing when the relevant secrets are declassified. The Article next contends that Totten is a very narrow doctrine that cannot and should not have any role in informing cases such as Jeppesen Dataplan in which plaintiffs did not contract with the government. 

In addition, the Article argues that the state secrets privilege, as laid out in the 1953 Reynolds case and subsequently expanded by lower courts, permits pre-discovery dismissal of suits based on the state secrets privilege and thus exacerbates the pro government bias already present in Reynolds. The Article explores seven ways in which lower court decisions have all tended to make it easier for the government to assert the state secrets privilege, while the lack of penalties for overly aggressive assertion of the privilege results in intolerable abuses. 

While the Article thus offers fundamental critiques of both the Totten doctrine and the state secrets privilege, it does not advocate disclosure of state secrets. Rather, in a concluding section, the Article draws on federal statutory schemes relating to the introduction of classified information in criminal trials and offers numerous alternatives to judgment in favor of the government and its contractors before discovery has begun in cases implicating state secrets. Congress has repeatedly empowered courts to make decisions that protect government secrecy while facilitating limited access to secret information when necessary in the interests of justice and open government. In some cases, the government’s inability to defend itself may necessitate the socialization of the costs associated with national security secrets, but that result is preferable to forcing plaintiffs to bear all the costs of government secrecy.

Comments welcome!


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