Biden Administration’s New Restrictions on U.S. Asylum Law Being Challenged in Federal Courts 

This year has seen many developments regarding the Biden Administration’s attempts to cope with the large numbers of migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Here is a review of some of those developments.

Biden’s New Asylum Regulation[1]

On February 21, the Biden Administration announced a proposed rule that would  require rapid deportation of an immigrant at the U.S. border who had failed to request protection from another country while en route to the U.S. or who had not previously notified the U.S. via a mobile app of a plan to seek asylum in the U.S. or who had applied for the new U.S. humanitarian parole programs for certain countries (Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela). This rule was scheduled to take effect will take effect on May 11, with the expected termination that day of Title 42 which allowed the U.S. to swiftly expel migrants at the U.S. border.

This announcement stated that the new rule would “incentivize the use of new and existing lawful processes and disincentivize dangerous border crossings, by placing a new condition on asylum eligibility for those who fail to do so. These steps are being taken in response to the unprecedented western hemispheric migration challenges – the greatest displacement of people since World War II – and the absence of congressional action to update a very broken, outdated immigration system.”

DHS Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas stated, “We are a nation of immigrants, and we are a nation of laws. We are strengthening the availability of legal, orderly pathways for migrants to come to the United States, at the same time proposing new consequences on those who fail to use processes made available to them by the United States and its regional partners. As we have seen time and time again, individuals who are provided a safe, orderly, and lawful path to the United States are less likely to risk their lives traversing thousands of miles in the hands of ruthless smugglers, only to arrive at our southern border and face the legal consequences of unlawful entry.”

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland added the following: “The Department of Justice is responsible for administering the Nation’s immigration courts and ensuring that claims are adjudicated expeditiously, fairly, and consistent with due process. This proposed rule will establish temporary rules concerning asylum eligibility in those proceedings when the Title 42 order is lifted. We look forward to reviewing the public’s comments on this proposed rule.”

The Administration said that without this new rule, immigration at the U.S. border would “increase significantly, to a level that risks undermining the … continued ability to safely, effectively and humanely enforce and administer U.S. immigration law.”

On May 12, 2023, these new restrictions on applications for asylum under U.S. law went into effect. Under these new restrictions aliens were disqualified for making such applications if they had crossed into the U.S. without either securing an appointment for an official U.S. interview at an official port of entry or without seeking legal protection in another country along their way to the U.S.

Reactions to U.S. New Asylum Rules[2]

Prior to this new rule, U.S. border patrol officials were daily encountering about 7,500 migrants trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. Since then the numbers have declined to about 3,000 per day, still historically high but dramatically lower than the 7,500.

There is abundant evidence that migrants have been applying for asylum in record numbers under this new rule and now are in long lines, taking several years, for their cases to be heard in Immigration courts. (At the end of fiscal 2022, there were nearly 1.6 million pending asylum applications.) Moreover, other migrants without legal support, are likely to miss the 12 month deadline for submitting the complicated application) and fall into the more perilous category of the undocumented.

In a joint statement, Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Alex Padilla (Calif.) called on the administration to drop the proposed rule. “We are deeply disappointed that the administration has chosen to move forward with publishing this proposed rule, which only perpetuates the harmful myth that asylum seekers are a threat to this nation. In reality, they are pursuing a legal pathway in the United States.”

A similar reaction came from leading Democrat House members (Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Pramila Jayapal). In their joint statement, they expressed “deep disappointment” with the newly proposed rule and stated, “The ability to seek asylum is a bedrock principle protected by federal law and should never be violated. We should not be restricting legal pathways to enter the United States, we should be expanding them.”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said they applaud the expanded pathways for those four countries announced in January but question where that leaves migrants from other countries. She says it favors people with resources who can afford the necessary requirements of finding a financial sponsor and buying a plane ticket to the U.S. And some people are so at risk, they simply cannot wait in their country for a humanitarian parole slot. Critics have also highlighted technological problems with the app.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform said that the rule isn’t designed to halt migrants as much as make the process more orderly: “In other words, the real objective is not to end large-scale asylum abuse, but rather to get them through the next election cycle.”

Justice Action Center’s counsel, Jane Bentrott, said the proposed rule “would send asylum seekers back to danger, separate families, and cost lives, as human rights advocates have been asserting for weeks. It is in direct contravention of President Biden’s campaign promises to reverse Trump’s racist, xenophobic immigration policies, and give all folks seeking safety a fair shot at asylum.”

Lindsay Toczylowski, the executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in California, criticized the inept operations of the government’s online system for scheduling an asylum application interview. “It’s almost like a lottery. You have to win a ticket to be able to seek protection in the U.S.”

An ACLU attorney, Lee Gelernt, who successfully challenged similar efforts by the Trump Administration, said that Biden’s new proposed rules had the same legal flaws as the Trump rules  and that the ACLU would sue to block the latest move.

Challenge to New Asylum Regulations in U.S. District Court[3]

A lawsuit challenging the new asylum rule was filed with the U.S. District Court for Northern California. The U.S. Government obviously opposed this lawsuit and submitted an affidavit  by Blas Nuñez-Neto, assistant secretary of homeland security for border and immigration policy, that described the real-world alternatives to the new rule: Customs and Border Patrol “facilities will be overcrowded once again, placing the noncitizens in our custody and the front-line personnel who care for them at risk.” Border communities “will once again receive large scale releases of noncitizens that will overwhelm their ability to coordinate safe temporary shelter and quick onward transportation.” And interior cities such as New York “will, once again, see their systems strained.”

Therefore, the U.S. Government argued that the Biden plan is necessary to the government’s “continued ability to safely, effectively, and humanely enforce and administer U.S. immigration law, including the asylum system.”

Nevertheless, on July 25, 2023, Judge Jon S. Tigar of the U.S. District Court for Northern California held that these new restrictions were “both substantively and procedurally invalid.” The Judge said, “The court concludes that the rule is contrary to law because it presumes ineligible for asylum noncitizens who enter between ports of entry, using a manner of entry that Congress expressly intended should not affect access to asylum.”

The judge, however, “immediately stayed his decision for 14 days, leaving the asylum policy in place while the federal government appealed the decision.”

An ACLU attorney for the plaintiffs said this ruling “is a victory, but each day the Biden administration prolongs the fight over its illegal ban, many people fleeing persecution and seeking safe harbor for their families are instead left in grave danger.”

According to the Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, however, “the administration strongly disagreed with the decision. With the policy still in place while the decision is appealed, he added, migrants who did not follow the current rule would face stiff consequences.” This result “does not limit our ability to deliver consequences for unlawful entry,” including prompt removal, a future bar on admission and potential criminal prosecution.”

Appeal About Asylum Rules in Court of Appeals[4]

The U.S. Government took an immediate appeal from Judge Tigar’s decision, and on August 3, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided, 2 to 1, that the pause or stay of the District Court’s decision invalidating the Biden Administration’s new asylum restrictions should continue for as long as it takes the appellate court to rule on the case. The appellate court also stated that it would “expedite its consideration of the government’s appeal and said that briefs from both sides would be due by the end of September at the latest. A hearing will follow.”

The two judges in the majority—William A. Fletcher and Richard A. Paez—did not explain their reasoning.

However, the dissenting judge, Lawrence Van Dyke, said that the majority judges did not give the Trump Administration the same deference when the court invalidated asylum restrictions, which were practically the same as those adopted by the Biden Administration. Van Dyke more colorfully said that Biden’s asylum restrictions were so similar to the Trump administration’s that it looks like they “got together, had a baby, and then dolled it up in a stylish modern outfit, complete with a phone app.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Erin Heeter, responded to this appellate ruling. She said, “We will continue to apply the rule and immigration consequences for those who do not have a lawful basis to remain in the United States. The rule has significantly reduced irregular migration, and since its implementation on May 12 we have removed more than 85,000 individuals. We encourage migrants to ignore the lies of smugglers and use lawful, safe and orderly pathways.”

Katrina Eiland, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case for the plaintiffs, had a different reaction. She said, “We are confident that we will prevail when the court has a full opportunity to consider the claims. We are pleased the court placed the appeal on an expedited schedule so that it can be decided quickly, because each day the Biden administration prolongs its efforts to preserve its illegal ban, people fleeing grave danger are put in harm’s way.”


We all now await the parties’ appellate briefs and oral arguments followed by the Court of Appeals decision and then potential further proceedings in that court and the U.S. Supreme Court.


[1] Biden Administration Announces Proposed Restrictions on Asylum Applications, (Feb. 27, 2023). h

[2] Meko & Vitchis, New Migrants Have a Year to Apply for Asylum. Many Won’t Make It, N.Y. Times (July 3, 2023); Sullivan, Lawyers Say Helping Asylum Seekers in Border Custody Is Nearly Impossible, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2023);Shear, Turkewitz & Sandeval, How and Why Illegal Border Crossings Have Dropped So Dramatically, N.Y. Times (July 26, 2023);

[3] Jordan & Sullivan, Federal Judge Blocks Biden Administration’s New Asylum Policy, N.Y. Times (July 25, 2023); Hackman & Caldwell, Judge blocks Biden Administration Asylum rules, W.S.J. (July 25, 2023); Editorial: Why are courts messing up a Biden asylum policy that works? Wash.Post ( July 27, 2023).

[4] Shear, Appeals Court Allows Biden’s Asylum Restrictions to Continue for Now, N.Y. Times (Aug. 3, 3023); Sacchetti & Miroff, Biden’s asylum restrictions for migrants may remain in place, federal appeals court rules, Wash. Post (Aug. 4, 2023)

Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

On January 23 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a straight party-line vote, 11 to 10, approved the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. [1]  On February 1 the full Senate did the same, 56 to 43, which was the largest negative vote for confirmation for this position in the Senate’s history. [2]

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Committee, said the following:[3]=

  • “I personally have no doubt that Rex Tillerson is well-qualified. He’s managed the world’s eighth largest company by revenue with over 75,000 employees. Diplomacy has been a critical component of his positions in the past, and he has shown himself to be an exceptionally able and successful negotiator who has maintained deep relationships around the world.”
  • “The other absolute standard we apply to each of these nominees who come before us is to ensure they have no conflicts of interest related to their position.”
  • “The non-partisan director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recently stated that Mr. Tillerson is making ‘a clean break’ from Exxon and is free of these conflicts. He has even gone so far to say that Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement ‘serves as a sterling model for what we would like to see from other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost.’”
  • “I believe inquiries into Mr. Tillerson’s nomination have been fair and exhaustive. His hearing lasted over eight hours, and he’s responded to over 1,000 questions for the record. I’m proud of the bipartisan process, which is in keeping of the tradition of this committee that we pursued this, regarding his nomination, and I think that while our opinions and votes today may differ, that the process has been very sound.”

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., RI), voting against confirming this nomination, said the following:[4]

  • “I believe Mr. Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as Secretary of State to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years. I will therefore not be supporting his nomination with my vote in Committee or on the Senate floor.”
  • “The United States plays a unique and exceptional role in world affairs.  Our values are our interests, as I said at Mr. Tillerson’s hearing. And our leadership in supporting democracy, universal human rights, unencumbered civil society, and unabridged press and religious freedoms is indispensable if these ideas and ideals are to be real and tangible in the world.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests.  The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to characterize Russia and Syria’s atrocities as war crimes, or Philippine President Duterte’s extrajudicial killings as gross human rights violations. And he was not willing to dismiss with unqualified clarity a registry for any ethnic or religious group of Americans.”
  • “I also believe Mr. Tillerson misled the Committee regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil’s [well documented] lobbying on U.S. sanctions [against “some of the worst human rights abusers in the world such as Sudan, Syria, and Iran”]. Additionally, ExxonMobil’s stance on U.S. sanctions against Russia for their illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014 was well known at the time . . . . This is why it is particularly concerning that Mr. Tillerson indicated during questioning that he was not willing to recuse himself from matters relevant to ExxonMobil for the entire duration of his term.”
  • “While I was pleased that Mr. Tillerson said that he would support the laws I have written to hold accountable human rights abusers globally and in Russia specifically, and that America should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change with the international community, merely being willing to uphold the law or being willing to participate in global diplomacy are simply the necessary prerequisites for the job, not sufficient cause for confirmation.”
  • “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place. . . . He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so.”
  • “Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms.”
  • “Finally, America deserves a Secretary of State who will take advantage of every smart power tool in America’s diplomatic arsenal before recommending the use of force. I was therefore disturbed when Mr. Tillerson signaled during the hearing he would have recommended using force sooner when asked about real-world scenarios. The Secretary of State must be the consistent voice in any Administration that ensures the President has exhausted all diplomatic efforts before we put our brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Senate Debate and Vote

During the debate, supporters stressed Tillerson’s qualifications and the importance of confirming the president’s choice or this important position.

The affirmative vote of 56 was recorded by all 52 Republican senators plus three Democrats (Heitkamp (ND), Manchin (WV) and Warner (VA)) and Independent King (ME).

The negative vote of 43 was registered by  the other 42 Democrat senators and Independent Sanders (VT).


In the meantime, there have been at least four major developments linked to the future role of the State Department and its new Secretary.

First, a White House post, “America First Foreign Policy,” has no specific references to Cuba. But it does have this helpful general statement: In “pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”

Second, the White House has informed at least 13 career Foreign Service officers in charge of the State Department’s bureaus responsible for policy, security and other matters that they will not be retained in those positions. A Department spokesman said, “These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments, but of limited term.” However, as Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration and a longtime diplomat, said, “Normally the outgoing person would stay in the job until his or her successor is confirmed. What you don’t want to have is a vacuum without senior leadership.”[5]

Third, the Trump Administration on January 27 issued an executive order banning admission into the U.S. of all refugees worldwide and all immigrants from seven states with majority-Muslim populations while simultaneously welcoming Christian immigrants from those same countries. This immediately prompted lawsuits in federal courts across the country with a federal court in Seattle on February 3 issuing a temporary restraining order against implementation of the executive order and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit the next morning denying the Government’s motion to stay the lower court’s order.[6]

Fourth, in another immediate reaction to that executive order, over 900 State Department diplomats prepared and submitted a dissent cable objecting to that same executive order because of its impact on “green card holders, visa holders, visa seekers, the young, the old, and the sick.” [7]

On the periphery perhaps of the above turmoil is whether the Trump Administration will abandon or alter the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalisation of relations with Cuba. As noted in a prior post, the Administration recently stated it has commenced an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba, which in the abstract sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Previous statements by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson, however, suggest that a significant retreat is on its way, a development that would be very troubling to this blogger and other supporters of normalisation.[8]


[1] Flegenheimer, Mike Pompeo Is Confirmed to Lead C.I.A., as Rex Tillerson Advances, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2017); Schor, Senate panel approves Tillerson nomination, Politico (Jan. 23, 2017); Cama, Senate panel votes to confirm Tillerson, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017); Demirjian & Sullivan, Tillerson approved by Senate panel as secretary of state, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2017).

[2] Harris, Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc Press, Senate Confirms Tillerson To Be   Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate roll vote for Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb., 1, 2017).

[3] Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Nomination of Rex Tillerson to Be Secretary of State (Jan. 23, 2017).

[4]Cardin, Cardin Statement on Tillerson Vote (Jan. 23, 2016).

[5] Gearan, Trump administration choosing to replace several senior State Department officials, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2017); Schwartz, Facing Replacement, Top State Department Officials Resign, W.S.J. (Jan. 26, 2017).

[6] E.g., Full Executive Order Text: Trump’s Action Limiting Refugees Into the U.S., N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017); Ländler, Appeals Court Rejects Request to Immediately Restore Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Trump’s Early Moves Spark Alarm, Resistance, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Biddle, New Memo from State Department Dissent Chanel Describes Anguish of Spurned Refugees, The Intercept (Jan. 31, 2017).

[8] These posts to have discussed preliminary indicators for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations: The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration (Dec. 22, 2016); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Jan. 23, 2017).

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.

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Rehearing in Kiobel Case Regarding Extraterritorial Application of the Alien Tort Statute

U.S.Supreme Court Building

As discussed in a prior post, on February 28th the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) (Sup. Ct. No. 10-1491) on the issue of whether or not corporations could be held liable under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS), and a decision in the case was expected by the end of this June.

The Kiobel Rehearing Order

Less than a week later (on March 5th) all of that changed when the Court ordered new briefs and a rehearing this Fall on a different issue that previously had not been considered in this case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit or by the Supreme Court itself. That new issue of extraterritorial application of the ATS was expressed by the Supreme Court as follows:

  • Whether and under what circumstances the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. §1350, allows courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.”

This surprising development appears to have been triggered by that very issue having been raised in another ATS case in a pending petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court in Rio Tinto vs. Saari (Sup. Ct. No. 11-649) brought by a corporation that had lost an ATS case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, California. The Rio Tinto cert. petition was considered by the Court at its private conference on Friday, March 2nd, and the order for rehearing in Kiobel was issued the following Monday (March 5th) without any announced action on the Rio Tinto cert. petition.

This apparent connection between the two cases calls for seeing what additional light may be shed on this new issue in Kiobel by examining that same issue in the Rio Tinto case. Rio Tinto, by the way, submitted an amicus curiae brief in Kiobel, but that brief did not discuss the extraterritoriality issue presumably because it was not germane to the two issues previously specified by the Supreme Court for the first Kiobel argument.

The Rio Tinto Case

This case under the ATS was brought by current or former residents of an island (Bougainville) in Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific Ocean. In the late 1980’s many residents of the island protested the mining activities on the island by Rio Tinto PLC and Rio Tinto Ltd., and the country’s military stopped the protests by killing many of the protesters. Their ATS case alleged that the military’s human rights violations were aided and abetted by Rio Tinto PLC, a public company headquartered in the U.K., and Riot Tinto Ltd., an affiliated public company headquartered in Australia.

The case started before 2002 and has a long complicated history.

The decision leading to the pending petition for a writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court was the October 25, 2011, en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit issued more than a year after the oral arguments. That decision partially sustained an ATS complaint against the two corporations and remanded the case to the federal district court in California for further proceedings. This decision by the 11 judges of the Ninth Circuit consisted of seven opinions spanning 170 pages covering many issues with different splits on different issues.

On the issue of extraterritoriality of the ATS, seven of the judges held that the statute had such application while the other four judges disagreed.

1. Majority opinion on extraterritoriality

The author of the 49-page majority opinion that sustained the ATS complaint was Chief Judge Mary Schroeder, who was joined on the issue of extraterritoriality by Judges Silverman, Berzon, Reinhardt, Pregerson, Rawlinson and McKeon. This section of the majority opinion is found on pages 19334-39 of the slip opinion.

The majority opinion first noted that the Ninth Circuit itself previously had decided that the ATS had extraterritorial application in In re Estate of Ferdinand Marcos, Human Rights Litig. (Marcos I), 978 F.2d 493, 499-501 (9th Cir. 1992), which involved torture that took place in the Philippines. In categorically rejecting the argument that the ATS applies only to torts committed in the U.S., the court had stated, “we are constrained by what [the ATS] . . . shows on its face: no limitations as to the citizenship of the defendant, or the locus of the injury.” (Id. at 500.) By implication, as a matter of stare decisis, the Ninth Circuit should reach the same conclusion in the current case. The majority opinion buttressed this point by citing cases in other circuits that had reached the same conclusion.

The majority opinion then observed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s only opinion on the ATS in the Sosa case in 2004 had recognized that the First Congress in 1789 had overseas conduct in mind when the Court in Sosa explained that in 1789, piracy was one of the paradigmatic classes of cases recognized under the ATS.

Next in the majority opinion was its analysis of the dissenting opinion’s principal authority, Morrison v. National Australian Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869, 2877 (2010), which held that section 10(b) of the U.S. Securities Exchange Act of 1934 did not apply to securities transactions conducted in other nations. In so doing, the Ninth Circuit’s majority opinion correctly acknowledged that the Supreme Court in Morrison employed a “presumption against extraterritoriality” and stated that “[w]hen a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none.” (130 S. Ct. at 2878.)

The Ninth Circuit’s majority opinion said, however, there was no indication in Morrison  or elsewhere, that a “presumption against extraterritoriality” existed and could have been invoked by Congress in 1789. Moreover, according to the majority opinion, Morrison “did not require that Congress use the precise word ‘extraterritorial’ in a statute to establish such applicability. It [Morrison] required only that there be a ‘clear indication,’ stating that such an indication may come from either the text or the context of the statute. Id. at 2883.”

Such  “clear indications” of extraterritorial applicability of the ATS were found by the majority opinion in both the statute’s text and its context. The text of the ATS provides for jurisdiction “of any civil action by an alien . . . committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1350. This text expressly creates jurisdiction for claims brought by persons who are not U.S. citizens. The text’s explicit reference to the “law of nations” indicates that one must look beyond U.S. law to international law in order to decide what torts fall under its jurisdictional grant. Moreover, the ATS was enacted in 1789 in the context of piracy occurring outside the U.S. as one of the paradigmatic classes of cases covered by the ATS.

Finally, according to the majority opinion, the ATS is a jurisdictional statute, and federal courts frequently exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters occurring outside the U.S., subject to the courts having personal jurisdiction over the defendants and to the principles of forum non conveniens and conflict of law principles that may call for dismissal of specific cases based upon their facts. In short, says the majority of the Ninth Circuit, the ATS provides a domestic forum for claims based on conduct that is illegal everywhere, including the place where that conduct took place. It is no infringement on the sovereign authority of other nations, therefore, to adjudicate claims cognizable under the ATS.

2. Dissenting opinion on extraterritoriality

Dissenting on this issue was a 36-page opinion by Judge Kleinfeld, which was joined by Judges Bea and Ikuta. (Slip Opinion at 19429-65.) I consider Judge Callahan to be the fourth dissenting judge on this issue by his joining the separate dissenting opinion of Judge Ikuta, which expressed agreement with the Kleinfeld opinion. (Slip. Op. at 19491 n.12.)

These dissenters’ concluded that the ATS was limited to torts in the U.S. to foreigners who were in the U.S. or who were outside any foreign state’s territory (i.e., on the high seas). There were four points or arguments advanced to support this conclusion.

First, they say, the previously discussed Morrison v. National Australian Bank Ltd. case reaffirms a long-standing canon of construction against implied extraterritoriality: “When a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none.”

Second, the ATS, they state, does not expressly authorize extraterritorial application, and its reference to the “law of nations” does not imply that it does. In addition, while the ATS does cover piracy on the high seas, that fact does not imply jurisdiction over wrongs committed within the territory of a foreign state.

Third, the dissenting opinion says the historical context of the adoption of the ATS in 1789 shows that its purpose was to afford a remedy for wrongs committed within the United States, not to enact a statute with extraterritorial effect. The dissenters say that the statute was enacted “to enable foreigners to sue for violations in America of a narrow set of norms, where failure to vindicate the wrongs might embroil our weak, new nation in diplomatic or military disputes. The wrongs were to ambassadorial officials in the United States, and piracy, sometimes by Americans.” Indeed, they say, with detailed support, “We had just signed a peace treaty with Great Britain after a War of Independence we barely won. We could ill afford diplomatic problems with the British, who bordered us on the north, the Spanish, who then bordered us on the south and west, or the French, whose support had been essential to our independence. Given our precariousness, the First Congress was concerned that American, not foreign, violations of the law of nations might ‘afford just causes of war,’ a war we likely could not win.”

Fourth, according to these dissenters, extraterritorial application of the ATS to so-called “Foreign-Cubed” tort cases (lawsuits by foreigners against foreigners over something that happened in foreign countries) would itself violate the law of nations. According to these dissenters, “The most fundamental principle of the law of nations . . . [is] ‘equality of sovereignty.’ Equality of sovereignty requires that every sovereign is to be treated as the equal of every other in its entitlement to govern persons within its own territory. ‘Under international law, a state has . . . sovereignty over its territory,’ which ‘implies a state’s lawful control over its territory generally to the exclusion of other states, authority to govern in that territory, and authority to apply law there.’”


I concur with commentators in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that the order for rehearing is not a good sign for maintaining the ATS as a means of enforcing international human rights and for upholding corporate liability under the ATS.

Another commentator speculates that the new issue specified by the Court for rehearing in Kiobel even encompasses the serious issues of (a) defining the elements for the tort of aiding and abetting a government’s human rights violations; and (b) the constitutionality of extraterritorial application of the ATS, both of which were addressed in the previously mentioned en banc opinions in Rio Tinto.

In the meantime,  the U.S. is adjudicating so-called “Foreign-Cubed” cases in other contexts. An U.S. immigration judge, after trial, has found that a former Salvadoran military officer participated in torture and extrajudicial killing of Salvadorans in El Salvador as a predicate for revocation of his U.S. legal residency and removal or deportation from the U.S. Another Salvadoran military officer, who is subject to a Spanish arrest warrant for his alleged participation in the 1989 killing in El Salvador of the six Jesuit priests (five Spanish and one Salvadoran) and their Salvadoran housekeeper and her daughter, recently has been indicted by a U.S. district court for alleged lying on U.S. immigration forms and thereby potentially leading to revocation of his U.S. legal residency status and removal or deportation from the U.S. (The latter was discussed in a Comment to a prior post.)

Finally, there is a bill in Congress with respect to other “Foreign-Cubed” matters. The bill would punish foreigners linked to foreign human rights abuses of foreigners (or presumably U.S. citizens) by denying them U.S. travel visas and freezing their financial assets in the U.S. Similar legislation has been proposed in the U.K. and eight other European countries.