Tuesday, February 21, 2017
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Hernandez v. Mesa, the case testing whether the family of a Mexican youth can sue a border patrol agent for Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations for shooting and killing the youth while the agent was on the U.S. side of the border, but the youth was in the concrete border culvert, 60 feet into Mexico.
The parties briefed three issues--whether a formalist or functionalist approach governs the Fourth Amendment's application outside the U.S., whether the officer enjoyed qualified immunity for the Fifth Amendment violation, and whether Bivens provided a remedy--but only two were really on display today: the extraterritorial application of the Fourth Amendment, and Bivens. And if the arguments are any prediction, it looks like a closely divided Court could rule for the agent. But the case could also be a good candidate for re-argument, when a ninth Justice joins the Court.
The plaintiffs' biggest problem was defining a workable test for the application of the Fourth Amendment. The formalist approach has the benefit of providing a bright-line for the application of the Fourth Amendment--the actual border. But the functional approach (or something like it) is more flexible in a situation like this, where the difference in a remedy could (absurdly, to some) be measured in the 60-foot distance between Hernandez and the U.S. border when he was shot.
Trying to walk a line between a rigid-border approach and a functional approach without any clear and determinate limits, the plaintiffs argued for a test that would apply the Fourth Amendment only in the culvert area straddling the border--an area that includes both U.S. and Mexican territory, but just barely. They justified this case-specific approach on the number of cross-border shootings that occurred of late: a particular problem demands a particular solution.
Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan seemed on board with this approach; Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito did not. If the Court splits 4-4 on the issue (as seems likely), the lower court ruling simply stays in place. That ruling said that neither the Fourth nor Fifth Amendment applied, and that Hernandez therefore had no federal constitutional remedy.
But whatever the Court says about the "extraterritorial" application of the Fourth Amendment, there's another issue--a threshold one: Bivens. Here, the Justices seemed to divide along conventional political lines. Justice Kennedy well outlined the conservatives' case when he asked the plaintiffs this:
Since 1988, this Court has not recognized a single Bivens action. We look for special considerations. You've indicated that there's a problem all along the border. Why doesn't that counsel us that this is one of the most sensitive areas of foreign affairs where the political branches should discuss with Mexico what the solution ought to be? It seems to me that this is an extraordinary case for us to say there's a Bivens action in light of what we've done since 1988 where we haven't created a single one.
The four conventional progressives pushed back, equally hard.
If the Court divides 4-4 on Bivens, as seems likely, it might not matter to the outcome, because a 4-4 split on extraterritoriality would hand the win to Mesa, the border agent. But a 4-4 split on Bivens would leave open a substantial question that the Court itself directed the parties to answer: does Bivens provide a remedy here? Because there's no lower-court ruling on Bivens (the en banc Fifth Circuit did not address the issue, and only reinstated the non-Bivens portions of the panel ruling), a 4-4 split would not even leave in a place a lower court ruling. Given that the Court itself added this question--suggesting that it would like an answer--a 4-4 split may mean that the Court holds this case over for re-argument with a ninth Justice.