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.