Amicus Brief in Al Bahlul Military Commission Case

by Jens David Ohlin

I have filed an amicus brief in the Al Bahlul case.  Al Bahlul was charged and convicted before a military commission for multiple offenses including conspiracy. On appeal, several of the charges were thrown out, but the conspiracy conviction remains and is the subject of his cert petition before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the government once held the position that conspiracy is an offense under the international law of war, the government eventually switched legal theories and argued that conspiracy is a domestic law offense triable before a military commission. As should be clear from the excerpt below, my own view is that the jurisdiction of military commissions is limited to international offenses under the law of war.

Here is a summary of the brief’s argument:

In this case, petitioner Al Bahlul was convicted of multiple offenses before a military commission, including conspiracy, solicitation, and material support for terrorism. See United States v. Al Bahlul, 820 F. Supp. 2d 1141, 1167, 1183 (U.S.C.M.C.R. 2011). On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the convictions for solicitation and material support. Al Bahlul v. United States, 767 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The sole remaining charge at issue in this litigation is Bahlul’s conviction for conspiracy.

In Hamdan, Justice Stevens’s four-vote plurality opinion concluded that a stand-alone conspiracy charge was not prosecutable at a military commission because it was not a violation of international law. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557, 604 (2006). In this case, however, the U.S. government has not relied on the classification of conspiracy as an international law offense. Instead, the government maintains that military commissions have jurisdiction to adjudicate the charge of inchoate conspiracy, despite the incongruity between that criminal offense and international law.

In proceedings below, counsel for the U.S. government has advanced various arguments for why military commissions have jurisdiction to try conspiracy – a domestic offense – even though the Supreme Court has made clear in prior decisions that the jurisdiction of military commissions is limited to the adjudication of violations of the law of war. These arguments all rely on the implausible suggestion that the “law of war” straddles the divide between international and domestic law, and that there exists a little-known domestic body of law called the American common law of war. According to the government, conspiracy is consistent with this newly re-discovered American law of war because the offence is entrenched in the common law, the legal culture of the United States, and Civil War commission practice.

This domestic “law of war” argument is problematic for multiple reasons. Although prior cases in this Court and elsewhere include references to something called the “common law of war,” see, e.g., Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, at 34, it would be legally and historically inaccurate to conclude that this phrase refers to a domestic body of law. Rather, an analysis of every mention of this phrase over the last 200 years demonstrates that the “common law of war” refers to international law – a law “common” to all mankind.

Determining the proper scope of the “law of war” in this context – i.e., whether it is international or domestic – has large implications for establishing the outer contours of the jurisdiction of military commissions. Given that military commissions operate outside of Article III, without the right to a jury trial protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, the resolution of this case is essential for demarcating the proper boundaries between a civilian system of criminal justice and a military system for prosecuting detainees captured pursuant to the laws of war. For these reasons, it is imperative for this Court to grant certiorari to resolve this fundamental federal question pursuant to Rule 10(c).

The full amicus brief can be found here.

http://opiniojuris.org/2017/07/02/amicus-brief-in-al-bahlul-military-commission-case/

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