Friday, June 12, 2015
The D.C. Circuit today vacated the conspiracy conviction by military commission of Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul, an alien enemy combatant who one time bragged about his role in the 9/11 attacks. The court said that the conviction for inchoate conspiracy--a charge that's not an offense under the international law of war--violated the Article III power of the judiciary "by authorizing Executive Branch tribunals to try the purely domestic crime . . . ."
The ruling is a victory of Bahlul and a blow to the government in conducting military commissions. In short, the case says that the government's charge in a military commission must be recognized as violation of the international law of war, and that Congress lacks authority to define an otherwise domestic crime as an international law of war in order to vest a military commission with authority to convict for its violation.
But while the ruling is significant, it's almost certainly not the last word on this case that's already gone up and down the judicial hierarchy. In particular: It's gone en banc at the D.C. Circuit before, and seems likely to go en banc again, if not farther, to the Supreme Court.
The court ruled first that Bahlul's structural challenge (that his conviction violated Article III) was not waivable, and that the court could therefore hear it--and to hear it de novo--even though he didn't raise it below.
The court went on to say that while the government could conduct law-of-war military commissions under Ex Parte Quirin, Quirin and its progeny limit the charges to "offenses against the law of war." But the court held that inchoate conspiracy isn't one of those offenses, that even the government agreed that it isn't, and that Congress didn't have power to define it as such: "Congress cannot, pursuant to the Define and Punish Clause, declare an offense to be an international war crime when the international law of war concededly does not." The court held that because conspiracy is only a domestic offense, and not an international law offense, the Bahlul's conviction by military commission (an Article I tribunal, not an Article III court) impermissibly intruded into the Article III role of the courts.
The court rejected the government's arguments that historical practice and the Necessary and Proper Clause (augmenting the Define and Punish Clause) did the trick.
Judge Tatel, concurring, explained why he joined the en banc court when it previously said that the Ex Post Facto Clause did not prevent Congress from granting military commissions jurisdiction over conspiracy, but now joined Judge Rogers in saying that separation-of-powers did:
The answer is the standard of review. The en banc Court came down the way it did, and I voted the way I did, because al Bahlul had forfeited his [previous] ex post facto challenge by failing to raise it before the Commission, so our review was for plain error. Applying that highly deferential standard, the Court concluded that it was "not 'obvious that conspiracy was "not . . . triable by law-of-war commissions" at the time al Bahlul committed his crimes.
But the court reviewed Bahlul's structural challenge de novo. And "[i]n my view, whether Article III prohibits military commissions from trying conspiracy turns on what Ex Parte Quirin says and what Hamdan does not"--that "the law-of-war exception is exclusively international," and does not include domestic crimes.
Judge Henderson wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that the majority's approach to Congress's power to define the international law of war would restrict Congress to only what the international community has said, and, worse, by the judiciary's reckoning:
My colleagues contend--as a matter of constitutional law, not simply comity--that the Congress cannot authorize military-commission trials unless the international community agrees, jot and tittle, that the offense in question violates the law of war. And the contend of international law is to be determine by--who else?--the Judiciary, with little or no deference to the political branches.