The Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, heard oral arguments this morning in two cases asserting civil damages claims against military contractors for their activities at Abu Ghraib and other locations in the Iraq war zone. (A short write-up of the now-vacated panel decisions is available here, and more extensive pre-argument discussions of various issues arising out of the panel opinions can be found at Lawfare here, here, here, and here.)
I attended the argument and came away with some (admittedly impressionistic) impressions that might be of interest to those following the cases who could not make it to Richmond for the argument:
- Almost all of the argument and questioning focused on whether the appellate court had jurisdiction. There was some discussion of the correctness (or not) of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Saleh v. Titan Corp., 580 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2009), dismissing similar claims under a form of “battlefield preemption.” But most of that discussion was about the proper characterization of the doctrine: Is preemption the right way to think about the doctrine, or is it closer to an immunity? And there was much discussion of whether the contractors had a substantial claim to derivative immunity.
- Given how the argument went, it would be surprising if the court were to conclude both (1) that it has jurisdiction, and (2) that the district court properly ruled in allowing the claims against the contractors to go forward. If the Fourth Circuit concludes that it has appellate jurisdiction, the merits of the ruling are likely to be in the contractors’ favor.
- BUT it is difficult to make any confident predictions given that several of the judges either did not ask any questions or asked only one or two, leaving little to observe about their case-specific inclinations.
- Judge Niemeyer and Judge Shedd, responsible for the panel opinions, mounted vigorous questioning designed to show that a remand for discovery was not only unnecessary but also would defeat the very interests to be protected by the immunity doctrine whose applicability they needed to decide, as well as undermining some of the federal interests protected by the preemption doctrine at issue. Judge Wilkinson’s questioning revealed him to be aligned with Judge Niemeyer and Judge King on these issues.
- Judge King, author of the panel dissents, led the questioning for the jurisdictional skeptics. At various times, questions by Judge Wynn, and to a lesser extent by Judge Gregory, Judge Motz, and Judge Davis, revealed likely alignment with Judge King on this point.
- Judge Duncan asked a couple of questions that appeared to be aimed at some sort of middle ground that would allow the Fourth Circuit to dismiss for lack of appellate jurisdiction but still provide guidance to the district court that, on remand, it needs to give more weight to the federal interests threatened by further litigation of these claims. But Judge Wilkinson asked a question suggesting that, if the Fourth Circuit dismisses for lack of jurisdiction, the Fourth Circuit risks taking itself out of involvement until after trial.
- Some of the judges appeared receptive to a remand for lack of jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine (the appellant’s theory of jurisdiction) with strong suggestions to the district court that it certify an interlocutory appeal under 1292(b). Judge Motz suggested that upholding jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine would create a circuit split. Earlier in the argument, Judge Motz observed that the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow expansion of the collateral order doctrine was analogous to its treatment of Bivens claims.
- The federal government had a rough day. At the court’s invitation, the federal government had filed an amicus brief. (See here for Steve Vladeck’s summary of the government’s brief.) Counsel for the government, Thomas Byron, had an excellent presence and remained poised and articulate throughout. But the court was clearly not enamored with the federal government’s seeming attempt to have things both ways. When counsel for the government began with a customary expression of pleasure at the opportunity to appear at the invitation of the court, Judge Motz noted that she was “surprised” to hear that given that the brief filed by the government was “equivocal” about the issues. Later on, Judge Wilkinson said that he agreed with Judge Motz, that he thought the government was offering the “most obscure, equivocal kind of presentation . . . .” Judge Motz then interjected that she didn’t say quite that, and Judge Shedd (I think) stated something along the lines of “it sure sounded like that over here.” (Note: It’s hard to convey a flavor of how this all went over in the courtroom, so it’s probably worthwhile for those interested to listen to the recording of oral argument when it is available next week.) Although Judge Motz dissociated herself from some of the more strongly negative characterizations of the government’s position offered by Judge Wilkinson, it seemed that even at the end of argument, Judge Motz was not completely satisfied with the government’s argument. This was apparent from a question she asked about the government’s understanding of Dow v. Johnson, 100 U.S. 158 (1879), which involves the non-susceptibility of military actors to answer in civil tribunals for actions in warfare. She asked government counsel, somewhat skeptically, to explain the following statement from the government’s brief: “Dow and the policies it reflects may well inform the ultimate disposition of these claims. But we are not prepared at this point to conclude that the contractor defendants have demonstrated a right to immediate review of their contentions based on Dow alone.”
- Notwithstanding the difficulties faced by the federal government, it is conceivable that something close to the federal government’s position with respect to jurisdiction could prevail, leading to another interlocutory appeal not too far down the road. As previously noted, however, it is difficult to make any confident predictions given the sheer number of judges (14) and the limited amount of information that can be gleaned from the contents of questions.