Friday, June 15, 2012

D.C. Circuit Rejects Torture Suit Against Rumsfeld

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today rejected a U.S. citizen's Bivens action against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for developing, authorizing, and implementing policies that led to his torture while in U.S. custody in Iraq.  The panel, following an earlier similar ruling from the Fourth Circuit, Lebron v. Rumsfeld, held that special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy--special factors "pertaining to military, intelligence, and national security."

The ruling comes on the heels of the Supreme Court's rejection of the plaintiffs' cert. petition in Lebron and while a similar suit is now pending before the en banc Seventh Circuit.  (A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit earlier ruled that the plaintiffs in that case did have a Bivens remedy against Rumsfeld.)

The case means that U.S. citizens won't have a civil damage action for constitutional violations against U.S. officials in the D.C. Circuit, even when the violations resulted from torture while in U.S. custody.  With two circuit rulings now on the books--this case, Joe Doe v. Rumsfeld, and Lebron--and with a Seventh Circuit ruling against the plaintiffs now all but certain, and with the Supreme Court's rejection of cert. in Lebron, it now seems all but certain that other circuits faced with the question will follow suit, and that therefore U.S. citizens won't have a civil damage action for constitutional violations against U.S. officials anywhere.

The case also gives extraordinary authority to the executive to evade suits for detention and mistreatment--even torture--of U.S. citizens.  Congress, of course, could change this by authorizing such suits.  But don't look for that to happen anytime soon--or ever.

The D.C. Circuit ruling closely follows the Fourth Circuit's earlier ruling.  That is, the court today ruled that the "special factors" of military, intelligence, and national security foreclose a civil damage remedy for constitutional violations by U.S. citizens.  Here's the court's special factor analysis:

In his complaint, Doe challenges the development and implementation of numerous military policies and decisions.  The complaint would require a court to delve into the military's policies regarding the designation of detainees as "security internees" or "enemy combatants," as well as policies governing interrogation techniques.

Doe's allegations against Secretary Rumsfeld implicate the military chain of command and the discretion Secretary Rumsfeld and other top officials gave to [military] agents to detain and question potential enemy combatants.  The allegations raise questions regarding Secretary Rumsfeld's personal control over the treatment and release of specific detainees.  Litigation of Doe's case would require testimony from top military officials as well as forces on the ground, which would detract focus, resources, and personnel from the mission in Iraq.  And . . . allowing such an action would hinder our troops from acting decisively in our nation's interest for fear of judicial review of every detention and interrogation.

Op. at 10-11.

The court also found persuasive--another "special factor" counseling against a Bivens remedy--that Congress did not authorize such suits under the Detainee Treatment Act, or any other statute.  

Because the court ruled against Doe on Bivens, it did not rule on Rumsfeld's defense of qualified immunity.


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