Tuesday, September 22, 2015
No Constitutional Claim for Former Embed Journalist
The D.C. Circuit this week dismissed a case of a former embed journalist against Defense Department officials for terminating his embed status in violation of the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The ruling may reveal a rift on the court over the sweep of sovereign immunity in a constitutional case for non-monetary, specific relief against government actors in their official capacity--that is, over the meaning or sweep of Clark v. Library of Congress (D.C. Cir.). The issue is critically important for access to justice.
The case arose when NATO officials terminated Wayne Anderson's embed status after he posted pictures that violated the Ground Rules for embeds. Anderson sued the Secretary of Defense and DoD officials in their individual and official capacities, seeking reversal of the memo terminating his embed status and declaratory relief (but no monetary damages).
Anderson appealed the lower court's dismissal, but only as to the defendants in their official capacities. He alleged a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. (Anderson's precise arguments were a little muddied, and maybe included a procedural due process claim, too.)
The D.C. Circuit ruled that the government enjoyed sovereign immunity against a suit against the defendants in their official capacities, and did not waive it through the APA. (The APA might have provided a statutory waiver of immunity, except that it exempts "military authority exercised in the field in time of war.")
The court went on to say that Anderson's claim was also moot. That's because the Afghanistan mission was drawn down, and NATO (not a party to the suit) led the embed program. In other words, the court said that it couldn't grant any relief to Anderson. But the court noted that Anderson could re-apply for the current embed program.
Judge Srinivasan concurred and dissented. He argued that the government did not enjoy sovereign immunity, citing Clark v. Library of Congress (D.C. Cir.). In that case, the court declined to apply sovereign immunity to shield the government from suit for non-monetary, specific relief for officials' unconstitutional behavior. The Clark court wrote, "Clark's claims for non-monetary, specific relief are not barred by sovereign immunity. It is well-established that sovereign immunity does not bar suits for specific relief against government officials where the challenged actions of the officials are alleged to be unconstitutional or beyond statutory authority."
Judge Srinivasan also argued that the case was not moot, given that the "government has not shown that the transition to a NATO-led mission has made it impossible for the court to provide any relief bearing on a United States journalist's ability to embed."