Deference Reconsidered

by Julian Davis Mortenson

Deborah Pearlstein and Michael Newton wonder what’s left of judicial deference in the wake of Boumediene. It’s a good question: certainly if you listen to the Boumediene dissenters, the answer is “not much.” Chief Justice Roberts rails against “unelected, politically unaccountable judges” and “the rule of lawyers” in concluding that “this decision is not really about the detainees at all, but about control of federal policy regarding enemy combatants,” Slip Op. 2, 28 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting). And Justice Scalia is quick to echo his colleague, suggesting that the majority has “blunder[ed] in” behind a posture of “faux deference” to hide its “inflated notion of judicial supremacy.” Slip Op. 5 n.1, 6, 17.

In one sense the dissenters’ rhetoric is fairly standard stuff, albeit unbecomingly vitriolic. But there’s an issue here that goes beyond mere rhetoric: I think in this case the dissenters may actually misunderstand the majority’s conception of how deference ought to work. It’s true that the Court is unwilling to defer to the political branches’ categorical elimination of a fundamental liberty right, particularly one which it describes, as Ted White points out, as the only procedural right incorporated in the original Constitution. It is also true that the Court is unwilling to defer on which large categories of procedural rights should be included in “the sum total of procedural protections at all stages, direct and collateral” afforded to accused enemy combatants. Slip. Op. 54. The Court instead insists on setting the essential terms of review itself, guaranteeing meaningful opportunities for petitioners to assess and challenge the government’s evidence; to present exculpatory evidence; to proceed adversarially rather than inquisitorially; to receive speedy review; to mount a legal challenge to the Executive’s power to detain; to obtain an order of unconditional release; and above all else, to avoid indefinite detention on the basis of a process that threatens a considerable risk of error. See generally Slip Op. 59-63.

The Court decided that the CSRT and DTA weren’t intended to offer any of this, notwithstanding Justice Roberts’ description of them as a “good faith” effort to implement Hamdi. (I don’t want to beat the drum on this point any more than I did in my last post, but the Court is absolutely right, and Justice Roberts absolutely wrong. See pp. 3-6 and 26-33 here for a highly condensed summary of why that’s the case.) And so the Court found the MCA unconstitutional.

But it seems clear to me from the tone and approach of the Boumediene majority that a serious and systematic effort to lay down rules—certainly procedural, and perhaps to some extent even substantive—governing preventive detention is likely to be respected by this Court. In its concluding paragraphs, the majority underscores that “[t]he political branches, consistent with their independent obligations to interpret and uphold the Constitution, can engage in a genuine debate about how best to preserve constitutional values while protecting the Nation from terrorism.” Slip Op. 69. Earlier in the opinion, the majority emphasized that “proper deference can be accorded to reasonable procedures for screening and initial detention under lawful and proper conditions of confinement and treatment for a reasonable period of time.” Slip Op. 65. Given that the Court has just overruled Congress’ first venture into this area, how precisely will this deference be realized? The opinion makes it clear: through the inverse relationship between the scope of habeas review and the procedural rigor of any prior proceedings, a phenomenon that plays a crucial role in the majority’s adequacy analysis. See Slip Op. 52 (“The necessary scope of habeas review in part depends upon the rigor of any earlier proceedings.”); id. at 57 (“habeas corpus review may be more circumscribed if the underlying detention proceedings are more thorough than they were here”).

(It should be noted that all this deference language may have one caveat. The majority pays notable attention to the savings clauses in both Swain and Hayman, which provided that “a writ of habeas corpus would be available if the alternative process proved inadequate or ineffective.” Slip Op. at 48. Congress might thus be well advised to provide for some flexibility in instances where law and equity require—the majority emphasizes, after all, that “common-law habeas corpus was, above all, an adaptable remedy. Slip Op. at 50. But such a clause seems unlikely to have much practical significance. The relatively rare success of original writs after AEDPA suggests that courts are unlikely to use escape clauses or flexible language to run roughshod over a carefully calibrated congressional scheme.)

So, returning to Michael’s important questions about the application of CIPA, the introduction of hearsay, the production of witnesses, interaction with counsel, and so forth, my own strong sense is that the court would love to defer to a reasonable resolution of these issues—specifying the particular mechanisms and legal tests by which the Court’s high-level procedural commandments will be implemented—so long as it is clearly the result of a process aimed at protecting the basic right of a detainee to demonstrate his innocence. And I frankly suspect that such deference is likely even on the question of the substantive authorization to detain, so long as the definitions of detainable persons are sufficiently nuanced—for example, varying in some systematic way, perhaps based on time of detention and the threat that is allegedly presented by the detainee (two factors that are mentioned in the Boumediene majority).

If this is right, then Congress has a choice. It can let the Article III courts work out the crucial questions of our legal structure for counterterrorism, including both the substantive categories of people the President is authorized to detain, and the procedures to determine whether a given petitioner falls in a detainable category. Or Congress can take on those tasks itself. In assessing this choice, Marty Lederman argues quite plausibly that there is no rush to institute a new preventive detention statute, particularly given the unhealthy political climate of election season. But on the broader question of whether Congress should be involved at all, I tend to sympathize with Ben Wittes’ desire for active participation by the most democratic branch of government, largely because the “paradigm problem” outlined here by Geoffrey Corn and David Scheffer fairly demands democratic participation in its solution.

But whatever the wisest course may be, my point is simply that the Court seems likely to defer to reasonable congressional implementation of the broad directives outlined in Boumediene. What are reasonable procedures? How long is a reasonable period of time? So long as Congress appears to have taken the core requirements seriously—so long as it can plausibly claim that it sought to “provide defendants with a fair, adversary proceeding”—the Boumediene majority suggests that congressional determinations about the details of procedure will receive significant deference.

One quick note about Justice Scalia’s accusation that the majority has extended an act of grace to our “enemies” (Slip Op. 1) (Scalia, J., dissenting). This is simply dishonest. Scalia’s formulation assumes, even if only rhetorically and morally, the conclusion of this entire controversy. The ultimate substantive question here, as Steve Vladeck has well articulated elsewhere, is whether these detainees are in fact “our enemies.” It is simply non-sensical to hinge the availability of an innocence-proving mechanism on whether the person seeking to use that mechanism is innocent. Scalia’s prominent and repeated formulation was not a responsible presentation of this case to the country at large.

With that, my time here is up. I’ll leave the last word on what Eric Freedman rightly describes as a momentous case to one of the Court’s most understated members, who offers a typically commonsensical summary: “today’s decision is no judicial victory, but an act of perseverance in trying to make habeas review, and the obligation of the courts to provide it, mean something of value both to prisoners and to the Nation.” Slip op. 3 (Souter, J., concurring). The time for perseverance is not yet over.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/06/17/deference-reconsidered/

One Response

  1. Washington Post-ABC News Poll:

    13. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that non-citizens suspected of terrorism who are being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be allowed to challenge their detentions in the U.S. civilian court system. (Supporters of this ruling say it provides detainees with basic constitutional rights.) (Critics of the ruling say only special military tribunals should be allowed, because hearings in open court could compromise terrorism investigations.) What’s your view – do you think these detainees should or should not be able to challenge their detentions in the civilian court system?

    6/15/08

    Should 34

    Should not 61

    No opinion 6

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