Thursday, January 19, 2017
Court Leans Toward Government in 9/11 Detainee Suit
An unusually short-stafffed Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Ziglar v. Abbasi, the case testing whether detainees in the early post-9/11 round-ups could sue government officials for damages for constitutional violations based on their harsh conditions of confinement. (Our preview is here.)
The Court leaned toward the government.
The deck was already stacked against the detainees, what with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan both recused. This left a six-member Court, with just two (Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) more likely to favor the detainees. But even if Justices Ginsburg and Breyer would rule for the detainees, they'd need a third vote to tie and affirm the Second Circuit's ruling, or a fourth to outright win. It didn't look like that will happen.
The deck was stacked for another reason: defendants challenged the Second Circuit's ruling on three independent grounds--failure to meet the pleading standards in Iqbal, lack of a Bivens remedy, and qualified immunity. A ruling for the officials on any one of these grounds would result in a loss for the plaintiffs. And based on the arguments, it seems likely that the Court could rule on different grounds for the different classes of defendants.
Much of the arguments focused on Bivens, and whether the plaintiffs' claim raised a "new context" for Bivens. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy--the two perhaps next most likely to rule for the plaintiffs, after Justices Ginsburg and Breyer--both said yes, based on the national security and immigration context of the case. (The plaintiffs have always maintained that the context is the condition in ordinary prison detention (and therefore a familiar Bivens context), not national security and immigration, because that's what they complained about. But Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy didn't buy it.) If so, the Court will likely rule that Bivens doesn't extend to this case, and toss the plaintiffs' claims.
Pleading standards and qualified immunity got somewhat less attention, but could also defeat the plaintiffs' claims. As to pleading standards, the government argued that this case is simply a re-do of Iqbal itself, with the same pleading deficiencies. As to qualified immunity, the government argued that high-level DOJ officials couldn't be held liable for establishing policies, while the prison officials argued that they couldn't be held liable simply for implementing policies. If so, qualified immunity puts the plaintiffs between a rock and a hard place, getting relief neither against high level DOJ officials nor lower-level prison officials.
At the same time, the Court (particularly Justice Kennedy) seemed concerned that the plaintiffs would have some remedy, even if not a Bivens remedy. Habeas, the Administrative Procedures Act, injunctive relief, civil rights conspiracy (42 U.S.C. 1985), and the Federal Tort Claims Act were all floated at one time or another as potential remedies, but each has its limits or outright problems. Between some or all of these, though, there's probably enough of a non-Bivens remedy to satisfy Justice Kennedy and even Chief Justice Roberts, if, indeed, that's a concern that might sway them.