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Posts Tagged ‘military contractors’

By 11-3 vote, the en banc Fourth Circuit in Al Shimari v. CACI International has dismissed the consolidated appeals of military contractors who worked at Abu Ghraib and other locations in Iraq. The contractors had appealed from the denial of their motions to dismiss claims brought by Iraqi nationals. The defendants’ motions to dismiss were premised on various grounds related to their status as military contractors in a theatre of armed conflict.

Judge King wrote the opinion for the court, in which Chief Judge Traxler, and Judges Motz, Gregory, Duncan, Agee, Davis, Keenan, Wynn, Diaz, and Floyd joined.

Judge Duncan authored a concurring opinion, in which Judge Agee joined, urging the district courts to “give due consideration to the appellants’ immunity and preemption arguments . . . which are far from lacking in force.”

Judge Wynn wrote a concurrence emphasizing that the court’s jurisdictional opinion “offers no guidance to the district court on the underlying merits of these matters.” (While this is true as a technical matter, the lawyers on both sides will undoubtedly parse the language very closely for future use in the litigation.)

Judge Wilkinson, Judge Niemeyer, and Judge Shedd dissented. Their grounds for dissent were set forth in dissenting opinions by Judge Niemeyer and Judge Wilkinson.

All told, the opinions take up 114 pages. It will take some time to digest them. In the normal case, the dismissal of appeals for lack of jurisdiction would mean the decisions go back down to the district court. But these consolidated cases are not normal cases, and they very well could end up in the Supreme Court next Term. If the contractors do seek Supreme Court review, that will place the Obama Administration in an awkward position given the “equivocal” nature of the position the federal government has thus far taken in the litigation (as observed by various Fourth Circuit judges at oral argument).

For some flavor of the passion aroused by this jurisdictional ruling, consider the following excerpts from the opening of Judge Wilkinson’s dissent:

The actions here are styled as traditional ones and wrapped in the venerable clothing of the common law. Even on common law terms, however, they are demonstrably incorrect, and the impact which tort doctrine will have on military operations and international relations magnifies the difficulties immeasurably. I dare say none of us have seen any litigation quite like this and we default if we accept uncritically or entertain indefinitely this novel a violation of the most basic and customary precepts of both common and constitutional law.

Sadly, the majority’s opinion does precisely this. After reading its decision, one could be forgiven for thinking that the issue before us is a simple jurisdictional question arising out of ordinary tort suits. But these are not routine appeals that can be quickly dismissed through some rote application of the collateral order doctrine. This case instead requires us to decide whether the contractors who assist our military on the battlefield will be held accountable through tort or contract, and that seemingly sleepy question of common law remedies goes to the heart of our constitutional separation of powers. Tort suits place the oversight of military operations in an unelected judiciary, contract law in a politically accountable executive. And in the absence of some contrary expression on the part of the Article I legislative branch, the basic principles of Article II require that contractual, not tort, remedies apply.

The majority emphatically decides this weighty question by pretending not to decide, as its dismissal of these appeals gives individual district courts the green light to subject military operations to the most serious drawbacks of tort litigation. But arrogating power to the Third Branch in a contest over military authority is the wrong call under our Constitution, and there is no garb for this decision so benign as to obscure the import of what the majority has done.

We tread this territory at our peril. This decision is contrary to decades of Supreme Court admonitions warning federal courts off interference with international relations. Of course military contractors should be held accountable, and it is important that a framework be set in place to accomplish this task. But instead of establishing that framework, the majority succumbs to mere drift and in so doing places courts in the most damaging and least defensible legal landscape possible. None of us have any idea where exactly all this is headed or whether the damage inflicted on military operations will be only marginal or truly severe. At a minimum, however, today’s decision breaches a line that was respected by our predecessors on courts high and low. I would not cross this boundary even if the collateral order doctrine could cloak my steps. With all respect for my fine colleagues, I would remand these actions to the district court with direction that they be dismissed.

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Having attended yesterday’s oral argument in the Fourth Circuit’s en banc consideration of Al-Quraishi v. L-3 Servs. Inc. and Al Shimari v. CACI Int’l Inc., I am now wading a little more deeply into the issues.

The D.C. Circuit’s decision in Saleh v. Titan Corp. involved similar claims to those asserted in the cases being considered by the Fourth Circuit. In reviewing that decision, I came across the statement in Judge Garland’s dissent that supplies the title for this post: “To deny preemption is not to grant plaintiffs free reign.”

Judge Garland must have meant “rein” instead of “reign.” But the mix-up is instructive. By asserting state tort law against contractors acting abroad under the control and direction of the U.S. military, authorizing discovery would be extending the “reign” of some other sovereign against the federal government’s chosen helpers in a war zone.

Judge Garland is right that this “reign” would not be “free.” The district court would hold the reins and govern the case based on the court’s perception of the relevant interests. But the appropriate question seems to be not simply how tight a rein the court may hold, but whether the horse should leave the starting gate at all.

(Note: Judge Garland may not be wrong, but rather avant-garde (instead of old guard) in his use of language. According to this Google Ngram, his chosen usage appears to be gaining in popularity while the conventional usage is running flat after something of a decline.)

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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.

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