07 Dec Judge Bates Dismisses Al-Aulaqi Case
Presswires are reporting that Judge John Bates has dismissed the much-noticed case in which the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights sought to bring suit on behalf of Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s father, contesting the ability of the President to target his son, an American citizen hiding abroad in Yemen who the government says is a targetable participant in a terrorist group covered by the AUMF. The opinion is here. The news story points to standing problems for the father. Says the AP:
U.S. District Judge John Bates said in a written opinion Tuesday that al-Awlaki’s father does not have the authority to sue on his son’s behalf. But he says the case raises serious issues about whether the United States can plan to kill one of its own citizens.
Quick update: On a fast read of the opinion — well, anyone interested in these questions needs to read it post haste. Far from merely being a narrow discussion of standing, it goes on to discuss the political question doctrine in great detail, and concluding on this point:
…this Court recognizes the somewhat unsettling nature of its conclusion — that there are circumstances in which the Executive’s unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas is “constitutionally committed to the political branches” and judicially unreviewable. But this case squarely presents such a circumstance. The political question doctrine requires courts to engage in a fact-specific analysis of the “particular question” posed by a specific case, see El– Shifa, 607 F.3d at 841 (quoting Baker, 369 U.S. at 211), and the doctrine does not contain any “carve-out” for cases involving the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. While it may be true that “the political question doctrine wanes” where the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens are at stake, Abu Ali, 350 F. Supp. at 64, it does not become inapposite. [p. 77 opinion, emphasis added]
But opinion contains much, much more. A very interesting discussion of why the Alien Tort Statute does not offer an avenue; state secrets doctrine; there is a lot of stuff here. More when I’ve read it more closely. It is an impressive work in judicial opinion-crafting, regardless of what one thinks of the outcome.
Update: Larkin Reynolds at Lawfare offers a bunch of snippets from the opinion; also at Lawfare, Bobby Chesney offers an objective outline, sans commentary, of the quite long opinion, and Jack Goldsmith and Ben Wittes weigh in with commentary. I was puzzled, frankly, at the coverage in both the Post and the Times this morning; Charlie Savage, for example, seemed to think that the language I quoted above was what Judge Bates rejected, if I understood his writeup correctly. Rather, this is what he found, albeit in a collateral and perhaps purely dicta way, given that he did not need to reach this once he had dismissed on standing grounds. The best one might say for plaintiffs here is that he confined himself to narrow facts, even while concluding that the executive’s decision was unreviewable.
Basically, I agree with Ben’s five points at Lawfare, and agree with him that the ruling is likely bullet-proof on appeal. The one point I’d add to Ben’s discussion is that it seems to me that Judge Bates’ motivation was to provide at least the beginning of clear institutional settlement on a crucial aspect of the executive’s national security prerogatives, even if it was arguably “mere” dicta.
I’d also note in passing that this holding illustrates in a backhanded way one of the aspects of the Alien Tort Statute that I find troubling, at least as applied to conduct outside the territorial United States. Viz., it confers special rights upon aliens that are not available to US citizens – including, in this case, a citizen named Al-Aulaqi. His alien father can at least begin to bring a claim that the citizen son cannot, because he is, well, not an alien. This makes sense to me in one context only, viz., when the conduct occurs in the territorial United States, and the alien present in the US might suffer at the hands of state courts or US citizens, who themselves have ample avenues open to them; it levels the playing field. Abroad, arguably, it gives aliens something that US citizens don’t have.