Friday, September 17, 2021

In Torture Case, No Secrets Left to Protect?

            Abu Zubaydah, wrongly suspected of being an Islamic terrorist, was tortured cruelly and secretly two decades ago at a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) black site in Poland. The details of his torture – waterboarding and half a dozen other “enhanced interrogation techniques” – have been laid out in a Senate Intelligence Committee report, a federal court opinion, and extensive news media coverage.

            Despite all that publicity, the government is now invoking the “state secrets privilege” before the Supreme Court in an effort to prevent Zubaydah’s lawyers from gathering sworn testimony from the two CIA contractors who designed the interrogation techniques used for a period of time in the CIA’s now discredited detention and interrogation program.

            The justices will hear oral arguments in the case, United States v. Zubaydah, on Wednesday, Oct. 6, two days after the opening of the 2021 term. A government lawyer will argue, implausibly, that it is immaterial that the “secrets” have been reported officially and unofficially in the United States and worldwide for more than a decade.   

            Pakistani authorities cooperating with the CIA captured Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002 based on the mistaken assumption that he was a high-ranking member of al Qaeda. He was taken to the CIA’s black site in Poland, held there for nine months, and was subjected to waterboarding more than eighty times and to other torture-like techniques developed by two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were paid $80 million for their work in developing and implementing the techniques.

Mitchell and Jessen, who were doing business as Mitchell Jessen Associates in Spokane, Washington, based the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” on their work in training Air Force pilots and other U.S. service members on resistance to the enemy if captured.

            Zubaydah was transferred in September 2003 to the prison camp that the Bush administration established for “enemy combatants” at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. He is still being held at Guantanamo today even though the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report on the CIA program concluded that his designation as a high-ranking enemy terrorist was “erroneous.”

            While Zubaydah was held in Guantanamo, Margulies sued Poland before the European Court on Human Rights seeking damages for the Polish government’s role in Zubaydah’s detention and interrogation. That court ordered Poland in 2014 to pay Zubaydah and a second detainee 100,000 Euros each for having exposed them to the risk of torture through its complicity in the CIA’s interrogation program.

            The current Supreme Court case stems from a legal move in 2018 by Zubaydah’s lawyer, Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies, asking a federal judge in Yakima, Washington, to issue a subpoena for Mitchell and Jessen for testimony to be used in a second proceeding against Poland pending before the European tribunal. U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush initially granted Margulies’ request, but he quashed the subpoena after the Trump administration raised a “state secrets privilege” objection.

            On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held on September 18, 2019, that Quackenbush should not have quashed the subpoena. The appeals court instead remanded the case with instructions for Quackenbush to redact any testimony specifically found to expose national security secrets.

            The lame-duck Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to review that decision in a petition for certiorari filed on December 17, 2020. The administration argued that discovery would risk exposing  “classified information” and contended that previous unofficial disclosure of the information did not supersede the state secrets privilege.

            Margulies countered the government’s petition by stressing that the existence of the covert CIA facility, now closed, was “already a matter of public record” and Poland’s cooperation was “no secret at all.” 

            The Biden administration reaffirmed the government’s earlier position in a reply brief filed on March 4, 2021, by the acting solicitor general, Elizabeth Prelogar. The Court granted certiorari seven weeks later, on April 26. More than a dozen civil liberties and human rights organizations filed amicus briefs over the summer urging the justices to allow the limited discovery that the Ninth Circuit panel had ordered.

            In one of those briefs, David Schulz, a lawyer with the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, argued aptly that the Court “should not expand the state secrets privilege to shield discussion of publicly established facts.” Courts, Schulz added, “should not defer to the executive in deciding whether a fact is secret.”

            In another of the amicus briefs, Physicians for Human Rights and several other professional associations argue that Mitchell and Jessen violated ethical standards and that transparency about their roles is “paramount for the mental health profession and society at large.”

            The complete history of this shameful episode has yet to be written. The government may have no interest in a full history, but the Supreme Court owes it to future generations now to allow one of the torture victims to put the architects of his abusive treatment under oath to get a more complete record of their foul deeds.

            It is worth noting that seventy-seven years ago, the Court wrongly deferred to the government’s ill-founded claims about national security in upholding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The decision in Korematsu v. United States (1944) is a stain on the Court’s record, but to its credit the Court five years ago pronounced the decision “gravely wrong” and “overruled by history.” With 20/20 hindsight, the Court ought not make a similar mistake again.

 

 

 

 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Justices' Misplaced Priorities in Reviewing Capital Cases

             John Henry Ramirez committed a senseless and savage murder in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2004 when he was twenty years old. He killed a convenience store clerk by stabbing him more than two dozen times and then robbing him of the paltry sum of $1.25.

            Nothing about Ramirez’s offense or the trial and death sentence four years later cries out for special consideration in the courts. Even so, the Supreme Court granted Ramirez a reprieve on Wednesday [Sept. 8] based solely on a religious freedom claim that he is entitled to be ministered to by his spiritual adviser as he is being put to death.

            The justices granted Ramirez a stay of execution on Wednesday night, three hours after the scheduled start of the lethal injection protocol. Along with the stay of execution, the Court also agreed to hear Ramirez’s substantive appeal in Ramirez v. Collier that the state must allow his spiritual adviser to lay hands on him and pray aloud inside the execution chamber once the execution begins.

            As an opponent of capital punishment, this writer cannot begrudge Ramirez the reprieve that the Court granted last week. But the justices’ solicitude for Ramirez’s plea is in stark contrast with the justices’ usual indifference toward pleas from death row inmates based on claimed legal errors in their convictions or sentences.

            As one example, the Court refused on April 19 to hear Frederick Whatley’s effort to challenge the death sentence he received in Georgia for killing a liquor store clerk during an armed robbery. Whatley asked the justices to review his sentence because he had been shackled with leg irons while testifying in his capital sentencing hearing. Dissenting from the Court’s refusal to hear the case in Whatley v. Warden, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the shackling was “unnecessary” and “plainly prejudicial” based on the Court’s precedents and evident grounds for finding the death sentence unconstitutional.

            Sotomayor had dissented three months earlier from the Court’s order in United States v. Higgs (January 15) that brushed aside questions about the lethal injection protocols that the federal government was using as it resumed federal executions after a seventeen-year hiatus.

            Referring to a succession of cases, Sotomayor minced no words in complaining. “This Court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief," she wrote. "The Court has even intervened to lift stays of execution that lower courts put in place, thereby ensuring those prisoners’ challenges would never receive a meaningful airing.”

            Earlier, Sotomayor and Kagan had joined in dissent when the Court refused to hear Alfred Bourgeois’ effort to avoid execution for the killing of his infant daughter based on an intellectual disability defense. The majority in Bourgeois v. Watson (December 12, 2020) refused to hear the case on the ground that Bourgeois could not raise the issue a second time after a lower federal court had rejected the defense.

            “Bourgeois presents a serious question that is likely to recur,” Sotomayor wrote in dissenting from the denial of certiorari. “Waiting to grant certiorari may mean permitting the illegal execution of people with intellectual disabilities.”

            Sotomayor dissented again, along with Breyer and Kagan, when the Court refused in Johnson v. Precythe (May 24) to consider an Eighth Amendment challenge brought by a Missouri inmate, Ernest Johnson, who claimed that because of a brain tumor, he would suffer “excruciating seizures” if put to death by lethal injection of the drug pentobarbital. Sotomayor argued that the federal appeals court that rejected Johnson’s plea had abused discretion by refusing permission for him amend his appeal. “We should not countenance the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment simply for the sake of expediency,” she wrote.

            The stay of execution for Ramirez marked the second time this year that the Court had granted a reprieve for a death row prisoner based on a religious freedom claim. The Court’s ruling in Dunn v. Smith (February 6) effectively upheld a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit that Alabama could not execute inmate Willie Smith without granting his last wish to have his pastor with him during the execution.

            Four justices – Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett – joined in an opinion decrying Alabama’s policy of leaving inmates to die without spiritual attendance. “Alabama’s policy,” Kagan wrote, “substantially burdens Smith’s exercise of religion.”

            With that opinion in the books, it would have been inconsistent at the least for the Court last week to have denied Ramirez the solace of his spiritual adviser during the planned execution. By granting certiorari in Ramirez’s case, the Court is now preparing to lay down guidelines for states to follow when a condemned prisoner asks for a chaplain at his side.  

            In Ramirez’s case, Texas argued that his request for his spiritual adviser’s presence would jeopardize security and detract from the decorum of the execution. In the Alabama case, Kagan rejected that concern. “[P]ast practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber,” she wrote.

            After considering Ramirez’s religious freedom claim, the justices would do well to give just as much attention to their responsibility to guard against legal errors in capital trials and sentencings rather than brush those issues aside.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Supreme Court Yields to Domestic Enemies in Texas

             Five Supreme Court justices labored up to the midnight hour on Tuesday night to produce a tortured legal opinion allowing the state of Texas to nullify reproductive rights for the state’s 14 million women.

            Anyone reading the unsigned opinion in Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson will look in vain for the reason why the five justices concluded that they cannot enforce the U.S. Constitution and the Court’s own decisions in the country’s second most populous state.

            Instead, the five justices – Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett – simply threw up their hands when facing “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions” about the decision by Texas legislators to deputize private citizens to enforce a blatantly unconstitutional law prohibiting abortions as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

            These self-styled conservative justices did not flinch when confronted with the truly Orwellian plan that Texas’s nullificationist legislators devised to secede from the United States’ constitutional republic.

            Texas’s plan is “Big Brother” on steroids. It offers nosy anti-abortion zealots a bounty of at least $10,000 for suing anyone who aids or abets a woman in getting an abortion legal in 49 states but not in Texas. The aiders and abettors could be the Uber driver or the friend who takes the woman to the nearby abortion clinic. There is nothing conservative about this scheme; it is instead radically totalitarian—un-American.

            In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor is quite correct to say that “a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.” The ruling, she went on to say, “rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review. . . .”

            In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts made the same point. The law, he explained, seeks “to insulate the State from responsibility for implementing and enforcing the regulatory regime.”

            The law purportedly bars any state officials from enforcing the law, but any enforcement necessarily depends on judges in Texas’s courts. For that reason, the women’s clinics challenging the law named one state judge as the defendant—representative of the entirety of the state’s judiciary.

            For seventy years, ever since Shelly v. Kraemer (1948), state judges have been prohibited from enforcing racially restrictive covenants. There is no evident reason why the Supreme Court cannot similarly prohibit Texas’s judges from enforcing this blatantly unconstitutional law.

            In their majority opinion, the five conservatives indulged the fiction that it was “unclear” whether the law would be enforced. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer answered by noting that the Court in previous rulings had allowed “pre-enforcement challenges” in cases in which the threatened harm was less serious and less clear.

            Breyer also noted the edict from a prior Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Danforth (1976), that “a State cannot delegate . . . a veto power [over the right to obtain an abortion] which the state itself is absolutely and totally prohibited from exercising during the first trimester of pregnancy.”

            Admittedly, the majority specified that they were not passing on the constitutionality of the law and stated that legal challenges could proceed in state courts. It is a curious inversion of constitutional law, however, for the Supreme Court to pass the buck to state court judges to enforce “the supreme law of the land.”

            With four separate dissenting opinions, it is telling that none of the five justices in the majority took the opportunity to write a concurrence to elaborate or to answer the dissenters. Indeed, what could they have said: “This isn’t as bad as it looks.”

            On the ground in Texas, however, it appears to be as bad as it looks. Waiting rooms in abortion clinics emptied at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday, as the clinics’ staffs explained in frustration that they would be complying with the law.

In her opinion, Sotomayor noted the likely effects. “[T]he Act,” she noted, “immediately prohibits care for at least 85% of Texas abortion patients and will force many abortion clinics to close.”

            In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan made the added point that the ruling was “emblematic of too much of this Court’s shadow docket decisionmaking – which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent, and impossible to defend.” And, indeed, none of the justices in the majority bothered to try.

            Perhaps those five have already decided to vote to overrule Roe v. Wade in the Mississippi case slated for oral arguments in December and decision by the end of the term. So, they may be asking themselves, why not let Texas have its way now?

            The entire episode brings to mind Justice Robert Jackson’s famous aphorism acknowledging the risk of error at One First Street. “We are not final because we are infallible,” Jackson wrote, “but we are infallible only because we are final.”

            For true constitutionalists, the hope remains that the Court’s tortured reasoning is not the final word for women’s rights in Texas. Indeed, in his opinion, Roberts envisioned that the Court will revisit the issues later after “full briefing and oral argument” and consider “whether interim relief is appropriate should enforcement of the law be allowed below.” 

            In other words, the buck stops down there, not here. Compare, however, the justices’ solemn oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic . .  .” (emphasis added).