A federal appeals court in
In the August 8 decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals lays out the factual allegations in explicit detail. The plaintiffs, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, in 2005-06 worked for a privately-owned Iraqi security services company, Shield Group Security. Vance became suspicious that the company was involved in corruption and other illegal activity. After he met with an FBI agent, he and Ertel became informants by sharing documents with
Evidently, whistleblowing was frowned on in
Then things got even worse. Vance and Ertel were taken to Camp Cropper, another U.S. military facility, where “they experienced a nightmarish scene in which they were detained incommunicado, in solitary confinement, and subjected to physical and psychological torture for the duration of their imprisonment—Vance for three months and Ertel for six weeks.” The Court adds, “If the plaintiffs’ allegations are true, two young American civilians were trying to do the right thing by becoming whistleblowers to the U.S. government, but found themselves detained in prison and tortured by their own government, without notice to their families and with no sign of when the harsh physical and psychological abuse would end.”
The torture included techniques forbidden by the U.S. Army Field Manual and the Detainee Treatment Act. Their lights were kept on at all times, day after day. Their cells were freezing and there was feces on the walls. They were given a concrete slab for beds, but guards woke them if they fell asleep. They were often denied food and water and necessary medical care. Intolerably loud music was pumped into their cells. They were slammed into walls while blindfolded with towels over their heads. During interrogations, Vance and Ertel were told that if they did not “do the right thing,” they would never leave
Vance and Ertel survived the physical and psychological torture. They then sued Donald Rumseld, claiming he was legally responsible for the torture. Of course, if this kind of abuse had taken place inside an American prison, the courts would not have to decide whether this abuse was actionable under the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. What complicates this case is the fact that the abuse took place in
While the Constitution is the law of the land, certain public institutions are given the benefit of the doubt in litigation. Courts often defer to the judgment of prison and public school officials in disciplining inmates and students. Courts are also reluctant to second-guess military judgments. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court refused to rule on the constitutionality of the Vietnam War. Under the Feres doctrine,
More broadly, courts often refrain from ruling on the constitutionality of federal decisionmaking through the so-called Bivens doctrine, named after a Supreme Court decision from 1971 that held that federal officials may be sued for constitutional violations only in limited circumstances. This restriction stands in sharp contrast to constitutional claims against state and local officials. While the lawsuits against state and local officials are governed by a civil rights statute, Section 1983, which provides for broad protection against constitutional abuses, there is no corresponding statute authorizing constitutional lawsuits against federal officials. In the Bivens case, the Supreme Court said that limited constitutional claims may proceed against federal officials if the victims have no other way to attain relief. A constitutional lawsuit against a federal official will fail under Bivens so long as the plaintiff can achieve a fraction of the relief through other means, even if that relief is unacceptable to the plaintiff. Many injustices have gone unremedied because of the Bivens rule.
Arar v. Ashcroft
A recent example of the federal courts’ refusal to intervene in military and national security judgements is Arar v. Ashcroft. In that 2009 case, the federal appeals court in
Fortunately for Vance and Ertel, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a way around the Second Circuit’s Arar ruling. Unlike Vance and Ertel, Arar was not a
Seventh Circuit Ruling
After working around the presumption against second-guessing military judgments, Vance and Ertel had to navigate the qualified immunity doctrine, which grants government officials immunity from liability if the law was not clearly established at the time of the constitutional violation. The theory is that, in close cases, government defendants cannot be expected to know that a court in the future will find a certain practice illegal. Qualified immunity also holds that government officials need flexibility in making good-faith decisions without fear that their conduct in an uncertain legal context will be deemed illegal through the benefit of 20-20 judicial hindsight. But the Seventh Circuit said that what happened to Vance and Ertel was inherently illegal and that, if the torture allegations are true, Ashcroft knowingly violated constitutional law in permitting the use of torture in the interrogation of detainees.
This was a remarkable ruling by the Seventh Circuit. Many strong cases are dismissed on qualified immunity grounds. This is because some of those cases are so innovative that they raise novel legal issues that inherently fail under the qualified immunity analysis. Yet, in this case alleging that the Secretary of Defense was responsible for the torture of two American citizens in
How did the Court of Appeals get around qualified immunity in this novel case? For the Seventh Circuit, it was an easy call. The Court writes, “plaintiffs have articulated facts which, if true, would show the violation of a clearly established constitutional right…. The plaintiffs have pled that they were subjected to treatment that constituted torture by
Courts rarely address whether the Constitution prohibits torture against
But the Court of Appeals still had to get around the strongest hurdle in this case: whether torturing
A Sweeping Defense?
Turning to the central issue in this case, whether torture claims against the military may proceed in court for conduct arising from a war zone, the Court of Appeals declines to defer to the war machine, reasoning: “The defendants’ principal Bivens argument is that, because this case arose in a foreign war zone, no Bivens claim should be recognized. This sweeping defense is proposed against a fairly narrow claim. The defendants are arguing for a truly unprecedented degree of immunity from liability for grave constitutional wrongs committed against
The Court added: “The unprecedented breadth of defendants’ argument should not be overlooked. The defendants contend that a Bivens remedy should not be available to
This is great language for civil liberties advocates and those who opposed the war in
Relatedly, while the government argued that this case would require that the courts intrude upon national security decisions, here again, the Court of Appeals worked around this tried-and-true argument. It may be true that courts do not typically intrude upon matters of national security, but that is no reason to throw out the case. The better solution, the Court says, is to deal with the exposure of classified information as it arises. Trial courts are equipped to prevent the release of classified information. The court reasoned that “denying a Bivens remedy because state secrets might be revealed is a bit like denying a criminal trial for fear that a juror might be intimidated: it allows a risk, that the law is already at great pains to eliminate, to negate entirely substantial rights and procedures.”
This ruling does not find that Vance and Ertel were, in fact, tortured or that Rumseld is personally liable for that torture. All the Court does is allow Vance and Ertel to proceed with their lawsuit because their claims are enough to allege a constitutional violation. Still, this is an unprecedented ruling. Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, Vance and Ertel will be able to proceed like any other litigants in court, and they may presumably take sworn testimony from Rumsfeld himself. This decision confirms that, despite the conservative trend in the federal judiciary, judges with life-tenure who have no fear of political repercussions can still dispassionately rule against the highest-ranking governmental officials, even on matters arising from wartime in another country. The Court of Appeals’ ruling in Vance v. Rumsfeld shows that no one is above the law.
Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in upstate