U.S. Judicial Independence: Victim in the “War on Terror”

by Wayne McCormack

One of the principal victims in the U.S. so-called “war on terror” has been the independence of the U.S. Judiciary. Time and again, challenges to assertedly illegal conduct on the part of government officials have been turned aside, either because of overt deference to the Government or because of special doctrines such as state secrets and standing requirements. The judiciary has virtually relinquished its valuable role in the U.S. system of judicial review. In the face of governmental claims of crisis and national security needs, the courts have refused to examine, or have examined with undue deference, the actions of government officials.

The U.S. Government has taken the position that inquiry by the judiciary into a variety of actions would threaten the safety of the nation. This is pressure that amounts to intimidation. When this level of pressure is mounted to create exceptions to established rules of law, it undermines due process of law. Perhaps one or two examples of Government warnings about the consequences of a judicial decision would be within the domain of legal argument. But a long pattern of threats and intimidation to depart from established law undermines judicial independence. That has been the course of the U.S. “war on terror” for over a decade now.

Here are some of the governmental actions that have been challenged and a brief statement of how the Courts responded to Government demands for deference.

1. Guantanamo.

In Boumediene v. Bush,1 the Supreme Court allowed the U.S. to detain alleged “terrorists” under unstated standards to be developed by the lower courts with “deference” to Executive determinations. The intimidation exerted on the Court was reflected in Justice Scalia’s injudicious comment that the Court’s decision would “surely cause more Americans to be killed.”

2. Detention and Torture

Khalid El-Masri2 claimed that he was detained in CIA “black sites” and tortured – case dismissed under the doctrine of “state secrets privilege.” (SSP)

Maher Arar3 is a Canadian citizen who was detained at Kennedy Airport by U.S. authorities, shipped off to Syria for imprisonment and mistreatment, and finally released to Canadian authorities – case dismissed under “special factors” exception to tort actions for violations of law by federal officials – awarded $1 million by Canadian authorities.

Jose Padilla4 was arrested deplaning at O’Hare Airport, imprisoned in the U.S. for four years without a hearing and allegedly mistreated in prison – case dismissed on grounds of “good faith” immunity.

Binyam Mohamed5 was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” at several CIA “black sites” before being repatriated to England, which awarded him £1 million in damages – U.S. suit dismissed under SSP.

1 553 U.S. 723 (2008).

2 El-Masri v. United States, 479 F.3d 296 (4th Cir. 2007).

3 Arar v. Ashcroft, 414 F. Supp. 2d 250 (E.D.N.Y. 2005), aff’d by 585 F.3d 559 (2009).

4 Padilla v. Yoo, 678 F.3d 748 (9th Cir. 2012).

5 Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, 614 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. en banc 2010) damages – U.S. suit dismissed under SSP.

3. Unlawful Detentions

Abdullah Al-Kidd6 arrested as a material witness, held in various jails for two weeks, and then confined to house arrest for 15 months – suit dismissed on grounds of “qualified immunity” and apparent validity of material witness warrant.

Ali Al-Marri was originally charged with perjury, then detained as an enemy combatant, for a total detention of four years before the Fourth Circuit finally held that he must be released or tried.7

Javad Iqbal8 was detained on visa violations in New York following 9/11 and claimed he was subjected to mistreatment on the basis of ethnic profiling – suit dismissed on grounds that he could not prove Attorney General authorization of illegal practices and court’s unwillingness to divert attention of officials away from national security.

Osama Awadallah9 was taken into custody in Los Angeles after his name and phone number were found on a gum wrapper in the car of one of the 9/11 hijackers – charged with perjury before grand jury and held as material witness – Second Circuit reversed district court ruling on abuse of the material witness statute

4. Unlawful Surveillance

Amnesty International10 is one of numerous organizations that brought suit believing that its communications, especially with foreign clients or correspondents had been monitored by the National Security Agency – suit dismissed because the secrecy of the NSA spying program made it impossible to prove that any particular person or group had been monitored. The validity of the entire Foreign Surveillance Act (FISA) rests on the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment, a conclusion that was rejected by one district court although accepted by others.

5. Targeted Killing

Anwar Al-Awlaki (or Aulaqi)11 was reported by press accounts as having been placed on a “kill list” by President Obama – suit by his father dismissed on grounds that Anwar himself could come forward and seek access to U.S. courts – not only Anwar but his son were then killed in separate drone strikes.

6. Asset Forfeiture

6 Al-Kidd v. Ashcroft, 580 F.3d 949, 951-52 (9th Cir. 2009).

7Al-Marri v. Wright, 487 F.3d 160 (4th Cir. 2007).

8 Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009)

9 United States v. Awadallah, 349 F.3d 42 (2d Cir. 2003); see also In re Grand Jury Material Witness Detention, 271 F. Supp. 2d 1266 (D. Or. 2003); In re Application of U.S. for a Material Witness Warrant, 213 F. Supp. 2d 287 (S.D. N.Y. 2002).

10 Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, 133 S. Ct. 1138 (2013).

11 Al-Aulaqi v. Obama, 727 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. 2010)

Both Al Haramain Islamic Foundation12 and KindHearts for Charitable Humanitarian Development13 have been found by the Department of Treasury to be fronts for raising money for Hamas, and their assets have been blocked – despite findings of due process violations by the lower courts, the blocking of assets has been upheld on the basis that their support for terrorist activities is public knowledge.

Avoiding Accountability

The “head in the sand” attitude of the U.S. judiciary in the past decade is a rather dismal record that does not fit the high standard for judicial independence on which the American public has come to rely. Many authors have discussed these cases from the perspective of civil rights and liberties of the individual. What I want to highlight is how undue deference to the Executive in “time of crisis” has undermined the independent role of the judiciary. Torture, executive detentions, illegal surveillance, and now killing of U.S. citizens, have all escaped judicial review under a variety of excuses.

To be clear, many of the people against whom these abuses have been levied are, or were, very dangerous if not evil individuals. Khalid Sheikh Muhamed and Anwar al-Aulaqi should not be allowed to roam free to kill innocent civilians. But hundreds of years of history show that there are ways of dealing with such people within the limits of restrained government without resort to the hubris and indignity of unreviewed executive discretion. The turning of blind eyes by many, albeit not all, federal judges is a chapter of this history that will weigh heavily against us in the future.

No judge wants to feel responsible for the deaths of innocents. But moral responsibility for death is with those who contribute to the act. Meanwhile the judge has a moral responsibility for abuses by government of which the judiciary is a part. 

There is nothing “new” in the killing of innocents for religious or political vengeance. This violence has always been with us and will unfortunately continue despite our best efforts to curb it. Pleas for executive carte blanche power are exactly what the history of the writ of habeas corpus were developed to avoid,14 and what many statements in various declarations of human rights are all about. The way of unreviewed executive discretion is the way of tyranny.

12 Al Haramain Islamic Foundation v. U.S. Dept. Of Treasury

13 Kindhearts for Charitable Humanitarian Development, Inc. v. Geithner, 710 F. Supp. 2d 637  N.D. Ohio 2010).

14 The infamous British Star Chamber was abandoned in 1641. It was a mixture of “judges” and “privy councillors” which heard cases in secret and dealt mostly with political crimes. Although it started as a seemingly necessary way to deal with accusations against powerful persons, it became a major source of oppression by the monarchy.

Wayne McCormack is the E. W. Thode Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Professor McCormack teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure.