Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yoo, Torture Memos, and "Reasonable Officials"

On June 12, a federal judge has issued a stinging rebuke to John Yoo for the opinions he wrote for the Bush administration supporting indefinite detentions and "harsh interrogations." The judge ruled that Yoo's opinions were not merely wrong, but were unreasonably wrong when applied to an American citizen classified as an "enemy combatant."

This should be the first of many judicial opinions that forcefully and unequivocably reject the reasoning of Yoo's "torture memos."

The ruling was in a civil action filed by Jose Padilla against John Yoo in which Padilla has claimed that Yoo's legal opinions, written by Yoo while he was serving in the Department of Justice, caused Padilla to be deprived of civil rights. The complaint alleges unconstitutional detention without due process of law and mental and physical abuse. In rejecting Yoo's claim of immunity from personal liability for acts he performed while an official of the federal government, the judge held that Yoo's legal opinions were unreasonably wrong because Padilla's constitutional rights were "clearly established."

Some background: Jose Padilla is a citizen of the United States who was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport, initially charged with conspiracy to construct a "dirty" (i.e., radioactive) bomb, but then turned over to the military who held him in near-solitary confinement for almost four years before he was finally returned to the civilian courts where he pled guilty to crimes less serious than the ones he was initially charged with. (He could not have been convicted of the crimes for which he was originally charged because the original charges were dismissed "with prejudice" when the Bush administration insisted he be surrendered to military custody, and so the dismissal barred any future prosecution for the same crimes due to the constitutional prohibition of double jeopardy for the same offense.)

John Yoo was an official of the White House, and then the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice, and his legal opinions formed the basis for the Bush adminstrations claims of the powers of the President to order detentions and "harsh interrogations" notwithstanding constitutional guarantees of due process and statutory prohibitions against torture.

In 2008, and after his conviction, Padilla and his mother filed suit against Yoo, claiming that as a result of Yoo's legal opinions Padilla had been detained without charge and without access to legal counsel and had been subjected to severe and prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, painful stress positions, threats of death, and other forms of physical and mental abuse. Padilla and his mother asked for a judgment that those conditions were unlawful and unconstitional, for $1 (one dollar) in damages, and for other relief. Padilla v. Yoo, No. 3:08-cv-00035-JSW (U.S.D.C. N.D. Cal. 1/4/2008).

After some procedural sparring, Yoo moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a proper cause of action. In deciding this motion, the court did not decide whether what Padilla claimed was true, but merely whether Padilla could win the lawsuit against Yoo if it turned out that everything that Padilla had alleged was actually true. In deciding this motion, the court addressed two major issues:

1. Whether there is a cause of action and legal remedy in court for these kinds of allegations; and, if there is a cause of action

2. Whether the action is foreclosed by the usual immunity of government officials from any personal financial liability for their actions performed in the course of their duties.

On the first issue, the court ruled that the decision of the Supreme Court in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), which held that a lawsuit could exist for violations of the constitution, required the court to find a civil remedy for Padilla even though neither the Constitution nor any federal statute expressly stated that Padilla could sue Yoo. (This is an issue that will almost certainly be contested on appeal.)

On the second and at present more interesting issue, the court pointed out that the immunity of government officials for personal liability is a "qualified" immunity, which means that the official is immune unless their conduct violates "any clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a resonable person would have known." The court then stated that, in determining whether a government official should be held personally liable for questioned conduct, the issue was "whether, under that clearly established law, a reasonable official could have believed that the conduct was lawful." Applying that standard to the allegations made by Padilla against Yoo, the court then reached the following conclusions:

1. Yoo could be held responsible for deprivations of constitutional rights consistent with his legal opinions because "government lawyers are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct" and Padilla alleged circumstances that made his mistreatment reasonably foreseeable by Yoo.

2. Padilla sufficiently alleged that his constitutional rights were violated by denial of access to courts in violation of the 5th Amendment and cruel and unusual treatments that would be violations of the 8th Amendment.

3. Padilla's constitutional rights were "clearly established." In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected Yoo's arguments that the presidential designation of Padilla as an "enemy combatant" created any uncertainty about Padilla's constitutional rights.

The necessary, if not explicit, implication of the court's holdings is that Yoo's legal conclusions were not just wrong, but were not the conclusions of a "reasonable" federal officer. Padilla v. Yoo, No. 3:08-cv-00035-JSW (U.S.D.C. N.D. Cal. 6/12/2009).

Still to come is the report of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel on whether the opinions of John Yoo and Jay Bybee departed from professional standards to such an extent that they should be disciplined for failing to adhere to the rules of professional conduct.

Ozzie Myers in Iran

Reading about the "election" results in Iran, I can't help but marvel at the inexperience (or incompetence) of whoever was put in charge of fixing the results. Facing what was believed to be a close election, you don't report a 64-35 landslide, and certainly not before the ballots could have been counted.

A better role model would have been Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, who in 1960 waited until the rest of Illinois had reported its results before announcing the votes from Cook County, which gave John F. Kennedy a margin of victory large enough to carry the state and the Electoral College. That shows a certain amount of subtlety.

The results from Iran remind me of south Philadelphia (and Democratic) politician Michael "Ozzie" Myers who, early in his career and before he was allowed to be elected to Congress (where he got ensnared in the "Abscam" sting and was sent to prison), was entrusted with the job of getting signatures on a nominating petition for a Democratic candidate. When the petition was challenged, it was learned that one of the "signatures" on the petition belonged to a voter who had no fingers.

Maybe after a few more years of democracy, Iran will learn how to fix an election the right way.