Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, three justices said it was time to hear from the first detainee subjected to brutal interrogation by the C.I.A.
WASHINGTON — Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Supreme Court on Wednesday found itself struggling to address two issues stemming from that period: torture and government secrecy. Before the justices were done for the day, the proceedings had taken a surprising turn.
The basic question for the justices was whether the government could invoke national security to block testimony by two C.I.A. contractors who were instrumental in the brutal interrogations of the detainee known as Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded more than 60 times and is being held without charge at Guantánamo Bay.
Abu Zubaydah sought to subpoena the contractors in connection with a Polish criminal investigation. The inquiry was prompted by a determination by the European Court of Human Rights that he had been tortured in 2002 and 2003 at secret sites operated by the C.I.A., including one in Poland.
The United States government invoked the state secrets doctrine to bar the contractors from testifying in an apparent effort to avoid formally admitting what is common knowledge: that Poland was host to one of the so-called black sites.
Three justices proposed a novel solution: Why not let Abu Zubaydah himself testify in connection with the Polish inquiry? By allowing him to describe what he had endured, the justices suggested, the court could sidestep the question of whether the government had to allow the C.I.A. contractors to appear.
“Why doesn’t he testify?” Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked Abu Zubaydah’s lawyer. “He was there. Why doesn’t he say this is what happened?”
The lawyer, David F. Klein, said that was not possible. “He has been held in Guantánamo incommunicado,” Mr. Klein said of his client.
In the argument’s final minutes, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch urged the government’s lawyer to allow Abu Zubaydah to testify.
“Why not make the witness available?” Justice Gorsuch asked Brian H. Fletcher, the acting United States solicitor general. “What is the government’s objection to the witness testifying to his own treatment?”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor pursued the point. “Are you going to let him testify as to what happened to him?” she asked.
Mr. Fletcher would not give a direct answer. “I’m not prepared to make representations for the United States, especially on matters of national security,” he said.
But he promised to give the court a more considered response, presumably in a letter, after consulting with other government officials.
Justice Gorsuch seemed exasperated by the government’s position.
“This case has been litigated for years and all the way up to the United States Supreme Court,” he said, “and you haven’t considered whether that’s an off-ramp that the government could provide that would obviate the need for any of this?”Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, participating in the argument remotely after testing positive for the coronavirus last week, asked the last question, and it was an even more fundamental one. It concerned the status of the 2001 law that approved going to war against those responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or A.U.M.F.
“Is the United States still engaged in hostilities for purposes of the A.U.M.F. against Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations?” he asked, seeking to get at whether the United States still has a basis for holding Abu Zubaydah.
Mr. Fletcher said yes. “That is the government’s position,” he said, “that notwithstanding withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, we continue to be engaged in hostilities with Al Qaeda and therefore that detention under law of war remains proper.”
Most of Wednesday’s argument was devoted to an exploration of whether the government could invoke the state secrets doctrine to bar the C.I.A. contractors, James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, from testifying about the torture of Abu Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn.
He was the first prisoner held by the C.I.A. after the Sept. 11 attacks to undergo so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which were based on a list of suggestions drawn up for use on him by Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, both psychologists. It is undisputed that Abu Zubaydah was tortured at one or more black sites, and the justices frequently used the word “torture” to describe what he had endured.
Mr. Fletcher said Abu Zubaydah’s treatment was not a secret but that its location was. “Our nation’s covert intelligence partnerships depend on our partners’ trust that we will keep those relationships confidential,” he said.
That trust would be broken, he said, by confirming or denying the existence of an alleged C.I.A. facility in Poland.
That gave rise to a semantic puzzle. Was it possible to allow testimony from the contractors about what had happened but not where?
Chief Justice John G. Roberts said it seemed that the contractors could talk about many things other than the location of the events.
Mr. Fletcher disagreed. “You can’t take the location out of this proceeding because the whole point of the proceeding is to get evidence for a Polish investigation,” he said.
Mr. Klein, a lawyer for Abu Zubaydah, said he did not seek testimony about Poland, as a prosecutor there already had the relevant information. Rather, Mr. Klein said, he sought to provide the prosecutor with information about his client’s treatment by asking the contractors a series of questions.
“What happened inside Abu Zubaydah’s cell between December 2002 and September 2003?” he asked, giving the dates during which his client was understood to be held in Poland.
- “How was Abu Zubaydah fed?
- What was his medical condition?
- What was his cell like?
- And, yes, was he tortured?”
Justice Elena Kagan sketched out what she suggested was a gap in Mr. Klein’s argument.
The government has “conceded that Abu Zubaydah was tortured, but, because of relations with allies with cooperating intelligence services, they won’t say where it happened,” she said. “And you’re here saying: I need to know when it happened, and to know when it happened, the government would essentially be saying where it happened too.”
Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and was initially thought be a high-level member of Al Qaeda. A 2014 report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said “the C.I.A. later concluded that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of Al Qaeda.”
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Emergency appeals have become the tool of choice for the conservative movement.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court was so eager to nullify Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent securing the right to abortion, that it didn’t even wait for oral arguments.
Instead, in the middle of the night, five of the high court’s conservatives issued a brief, unsigned order allowing a Texas law that bans abortion at six weeks. The law also gives private citizens the authority to sue anyone who “knowingly … aids or abets” an abortion and rewards them with $10,000 if successful, essentially placing a bounty on anyone wishing to end a pregnancy, and anyone who might help them. Texas is now rewarding residents who snitch to the state on the most intimate details of other people’s lives.
“Last night, the Court silently acquiesced in a State’s enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedents,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “The Court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law.”
Also remarkable was that the Supreme Court acted through its “shadow docket,” the decisions the justices make regarding emergency appeals such as death-penalty cases. Under normal procedure, cases take time to work their way through the lower courts, and are received at the Supreme Court with extensive records, briefs, and oral arguments. Ideally, this allows the justices to ensure that their hugely consequential decisions are properly informed and made as carefully as possible, weighing all the relevant legal and constitutional issues. But there are some circumstances in which the Court needs to act quickly to prevent some imminent or irreversible harm. There’s nothing inherently sinister about that. The shadow docket, though, now resembles a venue where the conservative legal movement can get speedy service from its friends on the Court.
Over the past few years, the cases on the shadow docket have risen in significance, with the justices quietly making major changes to American law without the scrutiny or attention that comes with holding oral arguments or writing major opinions. Trump-administration attorneys found the Court’s conservative majority delighted to allow many of their most controversial policies to go forward. Under President Joe Biden, by contrast, the conservative justices have acted rapidly to block administration decisions, or to force Trump-era policies to remain in place.
“The term shadow is meant to evoke the understanding that what the Court is doing is not the way that decision making on an ordinary merits docket would happen,” says Melissa Murray, a law professor at NYU who clerked for Sotomayor while she was a federal judge. “I think it’s clear that it has become a shadowy way to effect substantive decisions in cases where the Court, in the light of day, would be more reluctant to move aggressively.”
The shadow docket has been a tremendously successful venue for the right. Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has closely followed the shadow docket, counts at least 41 requests for “emergency relief” submitted to the Court from the Trump administration, compared with eight under the Obama and Bush administrations combined. And he counts only four occasions during the Trump administration on which the Court denied “the government’s request outright.” That deference has not continued into the Biden administration.
“During the Trump administration, it was on the shadow docket that basically all of Trump’s controversial immigration policies affecting millions of people were allowed to go into effect, including the travel ban,” Vladeck told me. “During the Biden administration … perhaps the biggest shadow-docket ruling so far was the ruling last week that froze and effectively killed the CDC’s revised eviction moratorium.”
Under Trump, the justices allowed policies such as the administration’s travel ban targeted at mostly Muslim nations, its prohibition against trans people serving in the military, and its restrictions on asylum to go into effect. Under Biden, they have barred the administration’s attempt to prevent evictions because of the coronavirus pandemic and accepted a lower-court ruling demanding that the White House reimpose the controversial Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced migrants into “precarious conditions in dangerous Mexican border cities where thousands became victims of kidnappings, rapes and extortion,” according to The Washington Post. The decision compels the Biden administration to renegotiate an agreement with a foreign country reached during a prior administration; deference to the president’s constitutional authority to set foreign policy, which the justices had memorably cited in Trump-era cases, was suddenly absent.
“What is so troubling about this trend is its continuing acceleration, not in volume, but in quality,” Vladeck said. “The Court seems increasingly untroubled by deciding big questions that affect lots of people this way.” Having a conservative-dominated tribunal determine such questions, however, is an ideal arrangement for a party that has not won a majority of the votes in a presidential election since Tobey Maguire was Spider-Man, and that sees the popular majorities that vote against it as composed of illegitimate semi-citizens who have no right to govern.
The shadow docket has begun to look less like a place for emergency cases than one where the Republican-appointed justices can implement their preferred policies without having to go through the tedious formalities of following legal procedure, developing arguments consistent with precedent, or withstanding public scrutiny. And so after initially allowing the Texas law banning abortion before most women know they are actually pregnant to go into effect, five conservative justices told Republican-controlled states they could disregard Roe while insisting that wasn’t what they were doing at all.
Instead, the justices in the majority argued in their unsigned opinion that because the case presented “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions,” their hands were tied. This is ludicrously dishonest. If Texas passed a law granting $10,000 bounties to private citizens if they sued anyone who held or enabled an indoor church service during the pandemic, the Court’s conservative wing would not feign confusion about whether the constitutional right to freedom of worship had been violated because of the supposed novelty of the scheme.
This ruling is less a description of a complex legal challenge than a road map. As Mary Ziegler writes, the Texas law was strategically designed to evade legal restrictions, and the majority read the script that was handed to it. Republican-run legislatures now know that they can pass such laws and the Supreme Court will pretend to be unable to block them.
Among the Republican appointees, only Chief Justice John Roberts had enough respect for the right’s purported doctrines of judicial minimalism to vote to wait for the case to reach the high court through normal procedural channels. Ironically, though, the unsigned majority decision reflects a careful study of Roberts’s years of successfully managing the Court’s reputation. The decision does not say “Roe is hereby overruled,” but it tells states exactly how they can effectively ban abortion if they want to. In that, it echoes Roberts’s own tendency to hide his preferred outcomes behind legal technicalities, the better to mime fidelity to constitutional principle.
“Although the Court denies the applicants’ request for emergency relief today, the Court’s order is emphatic in making clear that it cannot be understood as sustaining the constitutionality of the law at issue,” Roberts wrote in his dissent. But because five justices allowed the law to go into effect—and by implication, laws in any other state that wishes to emulate Texas—Roe has been neutralized. The only question is whether that decision is temporary, and whether the Court will eventually enact any restraints on the particular legal scheme Texas has pioneered.
“I don’t think those in the reproductive-rights community who are sounding the alarm that [the Court] really effectively overruled Roe in Texas are being hyperbolic,” Murray told me yesterday, prior to the Court’s written opinion. “The fact that the Supreme Court of the United States allows a law that patently contradicts its own statements about the right to an abortion to go into effect is essentially the Court signaling that it does not care about this right and it does not think this right should exist.”
Neutralizing Roe through normal channels would have taken time, and the Supreme Court’s conservatives did not want to wait. Thanks to the shadow docket, they didn’t have to. Five conservative justices invalidated the constitutional right to an abortion simply because they could, because they felt like it, and because they don’t believe anyone can stop them.
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Amy Coney Barrett, whom President Trump has nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, was born in 1972, so she can expect to spend several decades shaping both American law and American life. As it happens, a year before Barrett’s birth, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., then a prominent lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, and later a Supreme Court Justice himself, wrote a now famous memorandum to the United States Chamber of Commerce, arguing that businesses needed to take a more aggressive hand in shaping public policy. “The American economic system is under broad attack,” he wrote, from, specifically, the consumer, environmental, and labor movements. He added that “the campus is the single most dynamic source” of that attack. To counter it, Powell suggested that business interests should make a major financial commitment to shaping universities, so that the “bright young men” of tomorrow would hear messages of support for the free-enterprise system. A little less than a decade later, a pair of law professors named Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia signed on as the first faculty advisers to a fledgling organization for conservative law students called the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. The efforts of the Federalist Society were lavishly funded by the business interests invoked by Powell, and it has trained a generation or two of future leaders. Not all of them have been “bright young men.” Some are women, including Barrett, and her confirmation would vindicate Powell’s plan and transform the Supreme Court.
Barrett made an appealing first impression in 2017, during her confirmation hearings to the federal bench. She and her husband are the parents of seven children. For many years, she was a popular professor at Notre Dame Law School, which she also attended and from which she graduated summa cum laude. She clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Scalia. As a judge on the Seventh Circuit, she has been a reliable conservative voice. Even liberal peers in the academy find her personable. She will probably do well in providing the artful non-answers that are the currency of Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, just as she did in 2017.
But there should be no doubt about why Barrett has been chosen. Much of the commentary about her selection will focus on the issue of abortion, and her likely role in overturning Roe v. Wade. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to appoint Justices who would vote to overrule that landmark, and with his three selections, including Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, he appears to have delivered. Barrett is not only a member of a conservative organization within the Catholic Church; her legal writings, and the views of some who know her, suggest that she would overturn Roe.
Still, it’s worth remembering the real priorities of Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, in this nomination. They’re happy to accommodate the anti-abortion base of the Republican Party, but an animating passion of McConnell’s career has been the deregulation of political campaigns. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision brought the issue to wide public attention, but McConnell has been crusading about it for decades. He wants the money spigot kept open, so that he can protect his Senate majority and the causes for which it stands. This, too, is why the Federalist Society has been so lavishly funded over the years, and why it has expanded from a mere campus organization into a national behemoth for lawyers and students. Under Republican Presidents, Federalist Society events have come to operate as auditions for judicial appointments. The corporate interests funding the growth of the Federalist Society probably weren’t especially interested in abortion, but they were almost certainly committed to crippling the regulatory state.
Barrett is a product of this movement, and not just because she clerked for Scalia. Her writings and early rulings reflect it. Her financial-disclosure form shows that, in recent years, she has received about seven thousand dollars in honoraria from the Federalist Society and went on ten trips funded by it. But it’s not as if Barrett was bought; she was already sold. The judge has described herself as a “textualist” and an “originalist”—the same words of legal jargon that were associated with Scalia. (She believes in relying on the specific meaning of the words in statutes, not on legislators’ intent. She interprets the Constitution according to her belief in what the words meant when the document was ratified, not what the words mean now.) But these words are abstractions. In the real world, they operate as an agenda to crush labor unions, curtail environmental regulation, constrain the voting rights of minorities, limit government support for health care, and free the wealthy to buy political influence.
It should go without saying that the nomination and the expected confirmation of Barrett in the final days before a Presidential election represent a paramount act of hypocrisy for McConnell and the other Republicans who denied even a hearing to Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, in 2016. But the fact that these Republicans are willing to risk that charge shows how important the Supreme Court is to them. Far more than a senator, a Supreme Court Justice can deliver on the agenda. The war on abortion is just the start.
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