ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, December 20, 2012

From Our Self-Promotion Department: Telman on Totten (Again)

LincolnThey say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the hallmark of insanity.  But it's also the hallmark of scholarship.  I have just posted on SSRN the shortest version yet of my argument for why we should not conflate the state secrets privilege with the Totten doctrine.  The good people over at the American University National Security Law Brief have agreed to publish it, so it should be up with them early next year.

Totten establishes a justiciability rule: people who enter into voluntary secret agreemetns with the government cannot sue to enforce those agreements because doing so would violate the implied terms that the agreements are to be kept secret.  Thus, Totten, estate administrator for a man who alleged that he had entered into a spy contract with President Lincoln (here pictured before he became either a vampire hunter or Daniel Day Lewis) but had not been paid, could not recover on the contract.  That basic principle was subsequently expanded in Tenet v. Doe to bar not just suits on contracts but all suits to enforce secret agreements with the government.

So, I have my issues with Totten, which I think has become overbroad, as I explained here.  But the point of the current article is simple and straightforward:  The state secrets privilege is an evidentiary privilege.  It is neither a contracts doctrine nor a justiciability doctrine.  The conflation of Totten with the SSP has resulted in the unwarranted pre-discovery dismissal of colorable claims alleging tort and constittuional violations by the government and its contractors.

But for those who want to see the draft, you can download it on SSRN here.  This is the abstract:

The state secrets privilege (SSP) has become a major hindrance to litigation that seeks to challenge abuses of executive power in the context of the War on Terror. The Supreme Court first embraced and gave shape to the SSP as an evidentiary privilege in a 1953 case, United States v. Reynolds. Increasingly, the government relies on the SSP to seek pre-discovery dismissal of suits alleging torts and constitutional violations by the government. Lower federal courts have permitted such pre-discovery dismissal because they have confused the SSP with a non-justiciability doctrine derived from an 1875 case, Totten v. United States. The Totten doctrine only applies to claims brought by people who have entered into voluntary relationships with the government, but it is now being invoked when the government seeks dismissal of tort claims through the SSP. While the government should invoke the SSP whenever necessary to prevent disclosure of information that might jeopardize national security, such invocations of the SSP should never result in pre-discovery dismissal.


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I read with interest your latest publication on the Totten doctrine and the SSP. I found convincing your thesis that the SSP is an evidentiary privilege and not a contracts doctrine or a justiciability issue. I also think you have effectively rebutted Major Barnsby's critique, especially with your comments about the inaptness of the baseball analogy and the problem of overclassification.

Best Regards,


Posted by: Steve Feldman | Dec 20, 2012 6:41:10 AM

Interesting article, although "SSP" is rather clunky. I'm sure you can frequently replace "the SSP" with "the privilege" and the reader will know exactly which privilege you are talking about. Conversely, repeatedly reading an unfamiliar acronym is jarring.

Posted by: andy | Dec 21, 2012 6:47:26 PM

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