Monday, June 19, 2017
The Supreme Court ruled today that post-9/11 "of interest" detainees could not sue executive officials for damages for constitutional violations during their detention. Moreover, the ruling in Ziglar v. Abbasi all but wipes out future damages remedies against federal officials for constitutional violations, except in the very narrow circumstances of three cases where the Court has found such a remedy. (And those cases may be hanging on by just a string.)
The case arose when post-9/11 detainees at a federal detention facility sued then-AG John Ashcroft, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, and then-INS Commissioner James Ziglar for abusive detention policies in violation of their Fourth- and Fifth-Amendment rights. The plaintiffs sought monetary damages under Bivens.
The Court today rejected those claims. In an opinion abounding with deference to Congress, Justice Kennedy, writing for himself and Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito (Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch were all recused), held that the case raised a new Bivens context and that special factors counseled against a Bivens remedy.
As to context, the Court set out this test:
If the case is different in a meaningful way from previous Bivens cases decided by this Court, then the context is new. Without endeavoring to create an exhaustive list of differences that are meaningful enough to make a given context a new one, some examples might prove instructive. A case might differ in a meaningful way because of the rank of the officers involved; the constitutional right at issue; the generality or specificity of the official action; the extent of judicial guidance as to how an officer should respond to the problem or emergency to be confronted; the statutory or other legal mandate under which the officer was operating; the risk or disruptive intrusion by the Judiciary into the functioning of other branches; or the present of potential special factors that previous Bivens cases did not consider.
In other words, if a new case isn't nearly on all fours with one of the three cases where the Court has found a Bivens remedy--Bivens itself (a Fourth Amendment violation), Davis v. Passman (an assistant's Fifth Amendment Due Process claim against a Congressman for gender discrimination), and Carlson v. Green (a prisoner's estate's Eighth Amendment Cruel-and-Unusual claim)--there's a new context. And the Court said that this case presented a new context.
As to special factors, the Court said that the claims "call[ed] into question the formulation and implementation of a general policy," that the policy related to the government's response to the 9/11 attacks (a national security concern, traditionally an area for the executive), that Congress had not provided a damages remedy, and that other remedies (injunctive relief, a habeas claim) were available.
Between the Court's very narrow view of new circumstances and its very broad view of special factors counseling against a Bivens remedy, this case failed. And the ruling ensures that very few future Bivens cases will succeed.
On another issue, the Court remanded a related claim against the prison warden, instructing the lower court to conduct a special-factors analysis. Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiffs' civil-rights conspiracy claim, holding that the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity, because the question whether officials all within the executive branch could constitute a conspiracy "is sufficiently open so that the officials in this suit could not be certain that [conspiracy] was applicable to their discussions and actions."
Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg.