Federal Appellate Court Grants Immunity to Author of Legal Memoranda Regarding U.S. Detention and Interrogation of Suspects in the “War on Terrorism”

U.S. Court of Appeals,        9th Circuit
John Yoo

On May 2, 2012, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco unanimously held that John Yoo was immune from civil liability to Jose Padilla (and his mother) for Yoo’s authoring legal memoranda in 2001-2003 for the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the detention and interrogation of U.S. citizens who had been declared to be “enemy combatants.”

This civil case arises out of Padilla’s arrest and detention by U.S. military officials. In May 2002 Padilla was arrested at O’Hare International Airport near Chicago on suspicion of plotting a radiological bomb attack in the U.S. and was detained under a federal material witness arrest warrant until June 9, 2002, when President George W. Bush declared Padilla to be an “enemy combatant.” For the next 3 and a half years Padilla was detained in a military brig where he repeatedly was subjected to sleep deprivation, shakling, stress positions, solitary confinement and administration of psychotropic drugs. In January 2006 he was transferred to a federal civilian detention facility in Miami, Florida, where a federal jury in August 2007 found him guilty of conspiring to kill people and to support overseas terrorism and a federal judge in January 2008 sentenced him to 17.3 years imprisonment. This conviction was affirmed in September 2011 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which vacated the 17.3 sentence as too lenient. The case was remanded to the district court where the case awaits the new sentencing.

Jose Padilla

This civil case was commenced by Padilla and his mother in January 2008. The complaint alleged that Yoo, as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, had authored various legal memoranda that provided purported legal justification for Padilla’s detention and interrogation, all in violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Article III and the Habeas Suspension and Treason Clauses of the Constitution and a federal statute. The complaint sought nominal damages of one dollar and a declaration that his treatment violated these constitutional and statutory provisions.

After the district court denied Yoo’s motion to dismiss the complaint, he appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the trial court on the previously mentioned immunity ground.

The Ninth Circuit correctly concluded that this appeal was governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision, Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 2974, which held that           “[q]ualifed immunity shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.” The alleged right must be “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.”

With this major premise in hand, the Ninth Circuit then concluded that in 2001-2003, when Yoo was at the Department of Justice, it was not clearly established that a U.S. citizen held in military detention as an enemy combatant was entitled to the same constitutional and statutory rights as convicted prisoners and that Padilla’s treatment amounted to torture.

John Yoo himself in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal naturally applauded the decision. His resistance to this lawsuit, he said, was “not just to defend the tough decisions that had to be made after 9/11. We fought to protect the nation’s ability to fight and win the war against al Qaeda—and other enemies—in the future.”

Yoo also launched bitter attacks on human rights groups that support lawsuits like the one against him and others who hold opposite opinions on the interrogation tactics. Such groups, he said, seek to “advance their agenda by legally harassing officials, agents and soldiers, and so raise the costs of public service to anyone who does not hew to their extreme, unreasonable views.” Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi was cited by Yoo as being misleading on the substance of a briefing by the CIA on its interrogation tactics. President Obama, according to Yoo, lacked “backbone” by declaring “the CIA’s interrogation methods to be ‘torture’  before the courts or his own Justice Department had delivered a considered opinion . . . [by launching] an independent counsel to hound CIA agents, even though career prosecutors had already looked into claims of abuse and found no charges appropriate . . . [by trying] to close Guantanamo Bay without any real alternative . . . [by stalling] special military commissions established by President Bush and ratified by Congress, and [by relying] on drones to kill rather than capture al Qaeda leaders for their intelligence.”

The Wall Street Journal, a long-time supporter of Mr. Yoo and the other authors of the legal memoranda in question, also welcomed the Ninth Circuit’s decision. The Journal declared in an editorial that the decision “vindicates the principle that government officials are immune from private litigation for their national-security decisions. The law has long held that executive branch officials can’t be sued for other than criminal acts so they can carry out their duties in the best interests of the country without threat of personal liability.” More vindictively, the Journal said the decision was a “watershed for repudiating sham tort claims whose goal is to intimidate—and perhaps bankrupt—anyone who dares to treat terrorists differently from shoplifters. In a better world, Padilla’s pals at the ACLU and the . . . [Yale Law School] Human Rights Clinic would be hit with sanctions and a bill for Mr. Yoo’s costs.”

The New York Times, on the other hand, criticized this decision. Its editorial acknowledged that the Ninth Circuit followed, as it had to, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that the so-called qualified immunity existed unless “existing precedent” put the claimed right “beyond debate.” This Supreme Court decision, however, had changed the legal standard for such immunity; previously it had required that a reasonable person would have known about the alleged right he allegedly had violated.

According to the New York Times, the Ninth Circuit’s decision this week showed why the new Supreme Court standard was “unworkable.” The newspaper said “the Bush administration manufactured both ‘debates’ — about torture and enemy combatants. . . .  By using the ‘enemy combatant’ category, the Bush administration stirred debate that had not existed about whether rights of an American citizen in custody depend on how he is classified. By coming up with offensive rationalizations for torturing detainees, it dishonestly stirred debate about torture’s definition when what it engaged in plainly included torture.” The Ninth Circuit decision can be used, the Times said, by future administrations “to pull the same stunt as cover for some other outrage.”

In the meantime, as reported in a prior post, Yoo and five other authors of the legal memoranda regarding detention and interrogation of individuals in the so-called war on terrorism are the suspects in a criminal case in Spain under the principle of universal jurisdiction that the trial court had temporarily dismissed or stayed so that the issues could be pursued in the U.S. On March 23, 2012, an appeals court in Spain affirmed the trial court’s decision. However, three of the 17 members of this appellate court dissented on the grounds that the conduct authorized by these memoranda were crimes under international and Spanish law and that the requirements for a Spanish court to defer to  U.S. authorities under Spain’s concept of “subsidiarity” had not been satisfied.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

2 thoughts on “Federal Appellate Court Grants Immunity to Author of Legal Memoranda Regarding U.S. Detention and Interrogation of Suspects in the “War on Terrorism””

  1. Comment: More Criticism of Ninth Circuit Decision in Case Against Author of Legal Memoranda Regarding Treatment and Interrogation of Detainees

    David Cole, Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, has written a detailed criticism of the recent Ninth Circuit decision in the Padilla lawsuit against John Yoo.

    Cole, No Accountability for Torture, N.Y. Rev. of Books (May 7, 2012), http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/07/john-yoo-jose-padilla-torture-lawsuit/.

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