Sunday, January 22, 2017
Arguments in Ziglar v. Abbassi
Some thoughts on last week's oral arguments in Ziglar v. Abassi, the follow-up to Iqbal raising three issues: 1) Whether a Bivens action can be brought against policymakers on national-security matters; 2) whether the complaints were sufficient under Twiqbal; and 3) whether any of this was clearly established in 2001.
1) This case might give the Court an opportunity to re-emphasize and re-ignite "obvious alternative explanation" as part of the pleading analysis. Although mentioned in Iqbal, lower courts had de-emphasized it as part of the analysis, other than a bit rhetorically. Which is good, since such an inquiry contradicts the purpose of 12(b)(6). That motion asks whether, accepting everything the plaintiff says is true, he could win. For the court to explain the defendant's conduct as a result of something other than what the defendant alleges is for the court to act as factfinder based on the plaintiff's preliminary allegations. But the SG mentioned this standard several times during his argument on behalf of Ashcroft, Mueller, and James Ziglar (the policy-maker defendants); the core argument was that the decisions were based on their best judgment about national security given their lack of information, rather than invidious discrimination.
2) Justice Breyer (whose questions I usually cannot understand) asked a question that captured the connection between ex post damages and immediate court orders (namely habeas) as constitutional remedies and why the former maintains a special place in any judicial regime. Using Japanese internment as his hypo, Breyer pointed out that a judge was unlikely to find a constitutional violation in 1942, given the immediacy of the crisis, the recentness of the executive-branch determination, and the uncertainty of events. But later damages actions and remedies allow judges to act after the crisis has been averted and with an opportunity to cast a cooler eye on the constitutional question. It thus is not enough to argue, as the government did, that these detainees could have sought habeas relief (as some did) or relief under the Administrative Procedures Act or injunctive relief on a constitutional claim--that later judicial inquiry in a damages suit plays its own unique role. The sharp dichotomy the SG drew--constitutional challenges to government policy come only through injunctive actions, never through actions for damages--is not supportable (certainly not if we use § 1983 as an analogue) or the best scheme for judicial enforcement of constitutional rights.
3) The arguments and questions over the Bivens extension reveal an unfortunate conflation of what should be distinct issues--constitutional merits, availability of a cause of action, and qualified immunity. Government attorneys and questions from the bench (especially from the Chief) worried that the possibility of a suit for damages against policymaking officials would over-deter officials concerned about their conduct ultimately being determined. But that concern is already addressed by qualified immunity, a point respondent's counsel* nailed in her argument. And Justice Kennedy called for a targeted qualified immunity analysis for claims against national policymakers, seemingly recognizing that the immunity analysis was the locus for that consideration. Plus, the two-step immunity analysis allows damages actions to serve as a vehicle for developing constitutional law, at least when the Court chooses to undertake that inquiry--but only if Bivens allows the Court to examine and analyze the constitutional merits.
[*] Respondent's counsel was Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights--and, I just learned, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
This is not a new problem. In Wilkie v. Robbins, the Court pushed concerns about the scope of substantive due process as a reason to reject a Bivens cause of action.
4) Justice Kennedy, who has voted to reject the Bivens action in every recent case, seemed surprisingly sympathetic to the petitioner. Some questions to the government suggested concern that the respondents had no meaningful remedies and his questions to the respondent seemed to tee-up her arguments. Maybe that is how the Court avoids a tie. [Update: I should clarify--that is avoid a tie on the Bivens question. I expect a majority to find that all the defendants have qualified immunity]