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U.S. Prepared to Launch Possibly Illegal Airstrikes Against Assad (But That’s OK)

by Julian Ku

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama has authorized U.S. military forces to use air power to defend  U.S.-trained Syrian rebels if those rebels are attacked by the Syrian government forces.

President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” said a senior military official. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”

I totally understand the reason for this policy. If the U.S. is going to train and support Syrian forces, and give them air support, it makes sense to provide air cover against all attacks.  But the legality of this policy under U.S. law requires reliance on the kind of pure presidentialism President Obama is supposedly against.  And its legality under international law is pretty tenuous as well.

Under U.S. law, the President is sort-of-authorized to attack ISIS under a very sketchy interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It is a very sketchy interpretation, but even that sketchy interpretation can’t justify air strikes on the Syrian government in Syrian territory and in defense of rebels involved in the Syrian civil war.  So the only legal theory that would support the U.S. position here is reliance on the President’s inherent powers under Article II of the Constitution without any claim of congressional authorization.  That’s all well and good, but it is another nail in the coffin for the congressionalist legal theory embraced by Candidate Obama in 2007.  Remember that? When Obama said the Constitution required the President to go to Congress unless the President needed to act against an imminent attack?  It seems so long ago.

Under international law, the Russians are already pointing out that using military force in a foreign country against that country’s recognized government is a violation of the U.N. Charter since there is no Security Council authorization here.  There isn’t even a clear “humanitarian intervention” theory here, at least not if the air strikes are only defensive.

And yet, I have little doubt that the U.S. will carry out the strikes if needed and that there will be almost no fuss in the U.S. about its constitutionality.  Article II is alive and well in the Obama era.  There may be little bit more fuss overseas about its legality under international law, since that seems a tough case to make. But it is hard to imagine that international law will act as much of constraint here either.

Recent International Legal Scholarship on the Crisis in Ukraine

by Chris Borgen

As the fighting in Ukraine continues into its second year, recent reports have variously focused on the promise of a weapons withdrawal and the risk that there is the opening of a new front opening. Recent international legal scholarship has attempted to frame the conflict within the context of international law and consider topics such as issues of legality and responsibility, the role of international law in conflict resolution, and what the conflict itself may show about the state of  international law and the international legal profession.  Following are two recent volumes and a set of videos covering a variety of such concerns:

The first is the current volume of the US Naval War College’s International Law Reports, which contains papers prepared for an October 2014 workshop organized by the West Point Center for the Rule of Law of the U.S. Military Academy and the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law of the U.S. Naval War College. These articles tend to focus on use of force and international humanitarian law related issues including Lieutenant Colonel Shane Reeves and Colonel David Wallace on the combatant status of “little green men,” Geoff Corn on regulating non-international armed conflicts after Tadic, and Opinio Juris’s Jens Ohlin on legitimate self-defense.

I was also one of the workshop participants and my paper, Law, Rhetoric, Strategy: Russia and Self-Determination Before and After Crimea, considers how and why Russia has used international legal arguments concerning self-determination in relation to its intervention in Ukraine. I address the question “of what use is legal rhetoric in the midst of politico-military conflict” by reviewing the laws of self-determination and territorial integrity and considering Russia’s changing arguments concerning these concepts over the cases of Kosovo, South Ossetia, and Ukraine.

In March, the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding and the Institute of Law Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences hosted a conference in Warsaw that brought together international lawyers from Russia, Ukraine, across Europe. (I was one of two participants from the U.S.) Given the breadth of views, the discussion was lively. Videos of the presentations are now available online. Panel topics include self-determination and secession (1, 2), use of force issues (1, 2), reactions of the international community (1, 2), issues of recognition and non-recognition (1), and the international responsibility of states and individuals (1).

In the West, we don’t often hear the Russian analyses of the international legal issues in the Ukraine conflict, so I want to highlight contributions by Prof. Anatoly Y. Kapustin, Institute of Legislation and Comparative Law and President of the Russian International Law Association (starting at the 36th minute of the panel on reactions of the international community), Prof. Vladislav Tolstykh of Novosibirsk State University (starting at the 52nd minute of the self-determination panel), and Prof. Evgeniy Voronin of MGIMO University (starting in the 54th minute of the use of force panel).

By the way, my own talk on the self determination panel begins at the 27th minute.

Third, the new issue of the German Law Journal is devoted to a broad range of approaches to assessing the conflict. The opening section uses the perspective of public international law. The next section, as described in the introduction by issue editor Zoran Oklopcic:

upset[s] traditional approaches by interrogating the professional commitments of international lawyers, insisting on the legal and factual hybridity of the conflict, and exposing larger ideational frames and their socio-economic underpinnings that make the conflict in Ukraine legally legible in a particular way.

Following this are discussions steeped in constitutional law and theory and normative political theory. The closing section proposes broader reform agendas and reconsiderations of the roles of law and of international actors. Contributors include organizer Zoran Oklopcic on early-conflict constitution-making, Brad Roth on the rules of secession, self-determination and external intervention, Mikulas Fabry on how to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Boris Mamlyuk on the Ukraine crisis, Cold War II, and international law, Umut Ozsu on the political economy of self determination, and Jure Vidmar on the annexation of Crimea and the boundaries of the will of the people.

I invite readers to point to other examples of scholarship on the Ukraine crisis via the comments section (or an e-mail to me). I think we all hope that this will become a historical incident rather than continue as a current event.

The Latest American Digest on International Law is now Available

by Duncan Hollis

Just a quick note to flag that the Digest of United States Practice in International Law 2014 is now available. You can access it here.  And here’s the accompanying press release from the U.S. State Department:

The Department of State is pleased to announce the release of the 2014 Digest of United States Practice in International Law, covering developments during calendar year 2014. The Digest provides the public with a record of the views and practice of the Government of the United States in public and private international law. The official edition of the 2014 Digest is available exclusively on the State Department’s website at: www.state.gov/s/l/c8183.htm. Past Digests covering 1989 through 2013 are also available on the State Department’s website. The Digest is edited by the Office of the Legal Adviser.

The Digest traces its history back to an 1877 treatise by John Cadwalader, which was followed by multi-volume encyclopedias covering selected areas of international law. The Digest later came to be known to many as “Whiteman’s” after Marjorie Whiteman, the editor from 1963-1971. Beginning in 1973, the Office of the Legal Adviser published the Digest on an annual basis, changing its focus to documentation current to the year. Although publication was temporarily suspended after 1988, the office resumed publication in 2000 and has since produced volumes covering 1989 through 2013.

Those “Snap-Back” Sanctions in the Iran Deal Have a Pretty Big Loophole

by Julian Ku

I don’t have a profound take on the Iran Deal (full text here) announced today between Iran and the P-5+1 leading world powers. From my understanding of this agreement, I am doubtful it will work out to benefit the U.S. and the E.U., but I don’t feel particularly strongly on this point. There are more than enough commentators out there who have strong opinions on the merits, a few of whom are even worth reading!

Here at Opinio Juris, we have concentrated on the key legal aspects of the Iran Deal in previous posts.  As Duncan has explained, the Iran Deal is not a binding international agreement.  As I have noted, the Iran Review Act does not actually require Congress to vote in order to approve the deal, and it allows the President to veto any congressional vote of disapproval.  Additionally, I think a future president could withdraw from the Iran Deal without violating either international law or the Constitution. (It’s nonbinding under international law and it’s not a treaty nor an congressional-executive agreement for U.S. constitutional purposes).

In this post, I would like to focus on another interesting legal quirk. In order to sell the bill to Congress and the U.S. public, the Obama Administration has insisted on some provisions to re-impose sanctions if Iran is caught cheating.  In earlier discussions, the President has called for “snapback” provisions in the Iran Deal.  In other words, if Iran is caught cheating, the prior UN Security Council Resolutions would be “automatically” re-imposed without going back for a new vote of the Security Council.

I have been skeptical about how this would work, as a legal matter. But the Iran Deal does indeed contain language calling for something like a “snapback” sanction.

37. Upon receipt of the notification from the complaining participant, as described above, including a description of the good-faith efforts the participant made to exhaust the dispute resolution process specified in this JCPOA, the UN Security Council, in accordance with its procedures, shall vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting. If the resolution described above has not been adopted within 30 days of the notification, then the provisions of the old UN Security Council resolutions would be re-imposed, unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise….

I suppose it is theoretically possible for this mechanism to work, as long as the UN Security Council resolution lifting sanctions on Iran contains language incorporating this “snapback” process.  The Iran Deal, we should recall, is not a binding agreement and cannot bind the Security Council. I am not aware of similar instances where terminated UN Security Councils could be automatically revived upon a finding of non-compliance, but I am hardly an expert on this subject so I would welcome any readers who can offer some examples.

In any event, there is one more rather large loophole. Paragraph 37 goes on to insulate contracts with Iran that have already been made from whatever “snapback” sanctions that are imposed:

…In such event, these provisions would not apply with retroactive effect to contracts signed between any party and Iran or Iranian individuals and entities prior to the date of application, provided that the activities contemplated under and execution of such contracts are consistent with this JCPOA and the previous and current UN Security Council resolutions.

Since there is likely to be a “gold rush” of business rushing to sign deals with Iran upon lifting of sanctions, this exception might prove a pretty big hole in the “snapped-back” sanctions.   The expected Chinese and Russian deals with Iran for arms sales and oil purchases could survive any snapback, even if Iran was caught cheating.

So even if “snapback” works legally, it would have pretty limited impact practically.Or am I missing something?

Make ASIL 2016 Great! Submit a Proposal

by Duncan Hollis

I am a huge fan of ASIL’s Annual Meeting for a whole host of reasons.  I like to see old friends, make new acquaintances, and spend inordinate amounts of time talking in the hallways.  The book sales on Saturday morning is a highlight of my year (no comment on what that may say about my life).  But what really holds the event together is it’s programming.  And while some of that programming comes from the Programming Committee leadership, many (if not most) of the panels have their origins in good ideas from members like you and me.  So, with that in mind, I thought I’d pass along the following item that I just received from Tillar House:

The Annual Meeting Committee of the American Society for International Law (ASIL) is currently accepting proposal submissions for its 110th Annual Meeting, held March 30 – April 2, 2016, in Washington, DC. This year’s meeting will be held under the theme “Charting New Frontiers in International Law.”
The Committee will prioritize session proposals that involve non-traditional formats, such as interviews, Q&A roundtables, lectures, poster sessions, or the use of multimedia or interactive audience participation features. In addition, the Committee is committed to expanding diversity in the issues and voices represented at the Annual Meeting, and is excited to present a track specifically focused on professional and academic development.

Submissions are due Monday, July 20th, 2015, and the Committee will notify proposers regarding the status of their submission via email in the fall of 2015. For instructions, more information on the Annual Meeting, and to submit a proposal, please visit http://asil.org/annualmeeting

I’m excited to see the call for new presentation formats and new voices.  So, please, if you have an interesting idea, please send it along to ASIL!  The Annual Meeting will be all the better for it.

UN Ombudsperson Kimberly Prost to Leave Post in July

by Kristen Boon

Kimberly Prost, the current UN Ombudsperson, will be leaving her post in mid-July when her term expires.   However, no replacement has been appointed, nor has the UN implemented a transition plan for her eventual successor.   The issue of what will happen to the current cases before the office, or to individuals who are unlucky enough to apply for delisting after July 14 is significant.   It highlights the fragility of this important institution at the UN, and suggests that not all member states wish it to function effectively.

Despite the considerable progress the UN has made in developing the institution of the Ombudsperson, which addresses review and delisting requests for individuals on the Al Qaida sanctions regime, it has become apparent that the institution may soon be synonymous with its first occupant: Ms. Prost.   The institution has not been streamlined into the UN system, and despite its important work, her status has been that of a consultant.  While some UN Member States initiated demarches to try to have her term extended, they were unsuccessful. It is unclear what the future will hold for the institution now that she is departing, which is significant rule of law problem.

The issue was extensively discussed at a recent conference on UN Sanctions at Leiden University in the Netherlands.   The program is available under the committee documents tab here.    In addition to the fragility of this institution, its exclusivity was discussed in detail.   The Ombudsperson’s Office has jurisdiction to review and delist individuals on the Al Qaida sanctions lists, but individuals and entities on the 15 other sanctions lists do not have access to this process. Instead, they may request a review from the Focal Point, which has a far less developed procedure and does not have the characteristics of an independent institution.   A number of countries have argued that the Ombudsperson’s jurisdiction should be extended to other regimes, although politically, it is clear that that if that happens, it would be the various sanctions regimes involving situations in Africa that would benefit, but not in the short or medium term, those involving WMD sanctions.  Information on the focal point is available here. A helpful overview of the differences between the Focal Point and Ombudsperson and links to other documents is available here.

Reading and Learning from Mike Lewis

by Jens David Ohlin

I met Mike Lewis during my first year of law teaching at Cornell Law School. Mike was scheduled to give a lecture at the law school about torture and I was invited to give a commentary on his presentation. Mike had pre-circulated the paper that the presentation was based on. I disagreed with his thesis and pressed him sharply on its details during the event. His thesis had the virtue of proposing a very workable standard for defining torture, but I felt it yielded counter-intuitive results for particular reasons that I articulated during the event. Afterwards, I was worried that I might have offended Mike, but it was not the case. Immediately after he got home, he wrote me a lovely note saying how much he appreciated our substantive exchange and was grateful that I taken the time and energy to respond to his scholarship. He was a true scholar and intellectual.

In the ensuing five years, I spent much time reading and learning from Mike’s other articles on IHL. This came at a crucial time for me as I was broadening my research agenda from exclusively ICL to include a wider range of IHL and law of war issues as well. I became heavily involved in debates about drones, targeted killings, targeting in general, and the relationship between IHL and human rights law. In all of these areas, I was heavily influenced by Mike’s explanations and positions that he articulated in his many law review articles. And I should hasten to add that on most of these crucial questions I was in agreement with Mike. Although I disagree with the Obama Administration’s legal positions on a few issues (definition of imminence, over-reliance on covert action and its consequences, use of the vague and indeterminate “associated forces” moniker, etc.), the general tenor of my scholarship has been to recognize that the deep architecture of IHL continues to be fundamentally Lieberian. I came to this view of IHL by reading a great many sources, but I would rank Mike’s articles near the top of that list. Simply put, I would not hold the views that I hold today if I had not been so richly educated by reading Mike’s work.

I spent some time with Mike at the ethics and law of war conference that Kevin Heller mentions in his remembrance. Mike was full of plans and we discussed the possibility of collaborating on future projects on the subject of the privilege of combatancy–a common interest for both of us. We hosted him at Cornell University last year as part of our university-wide Lund Critical debates series, where he debated Mary Ellen O’Connell on the use of drones. The video of the event can be found here; Mike’s presentation to the packed auditorium was both insightful and extremely clear. He had the ability to translate complex legal material to a wide audience, and Mary Ellen’s thoughtful critique on U.S. policies made for a lively debate between the two of them.

As I set about working on a new collected volume on remote warfare, I emailed him in October to commission a chapter from him; he enthusiastically responded in the affirmative. When just a few days ago I sent him a contributor agreement for him to sign on June 5, he informed me of his illness and said he could not definitively commit to the project anymore but was hopeful that he might still produce a chapter for it. Though he was still optimistic and making important plans for the future, I understood the nature of the diagnosis and prognosis because he gave me the name of his illness, but I labored under the illusion that we had more time. I was shocked when I learned that the end had come so quickly; I was unprepared for the news even though in the back of my mind I inferred the seriousness of the situation. I am devastated that we have been denied his voice for what should have been another 50 years. It highlights for me the fragility of life and our time on this earth and the ultimate unfairness by which some people are denied the privilege of a long life. But I take some comfort in knowing that he loved being a law professor and that we will be reading his work in the years and decades to come.

A Sad Farewell to Michael Lewis

by Kevin Jon Heller

As regular readers know, Mike and I often sparred on the virtual pages of Opinio Juris. By and large, we did so civilly. But on occasion — such as when we were debating whether the Bush admininstration’s “enhanced interrogation” regime qualified as torture — things became heated. I made him mad. He made me mad. I doubt either of us expected to like each other if we ever met in the brick-and-mortar world.

But like each other we did. Mike and I met only once, on the first day of a fascinating conference on ethics and the laws of war. We recognised each other from across the room as we were getting settled, and he quickly stomped toward me. I was a bit hesitant — but then Mike gave me a big hug and said how great it was to meet me and how much he had enjoyed our debates. It was a really wonderful moment.

It fills me with sadness to know there will be no such similar moments again. But I am very glad I had the opportunity to meet Mike — and I will remember our discussions, both virtual and real, for a long time.

Requiescat in pace, Mike.

Remembering Mike Lewis

by Chris Borgen

We are very sorry to mark the passing of Professor Michael W. Lewis of Ohio Northern University.

Mike spoke and wrote with rare authority as someone who was not only a leading international law and national security scholar who engaged in broader public discourse (see his many debates, presentations, and interviews), but also as a former Naval aviator and TOPGUN graduate, who had flown F-14’s in Desert Shield and enforced no-fly zones over Iraq.

More than most, Mike appreciated how international law was actually operationalized.

We at Opinio Juris benefited from Mike’s frequent contributions to the discussion, with posts and comments on issues such as the relationship between Additional Protocols I and II,  on various aspects of drone warfare (see, for example, 1, 2, and 3), and on  “elongated imminence” and self-defenseBobby Chesney and Peter Margulies have also posted remembrances about Mike Lewis at Lawfare.

On a more personal note, I remember the first time I met Mike in person, perhaps ten years ago, at a dinner at a national security law conference. He was a great conversationalist, speaking about the need to crystallize key principles of international law in a manner that would be immediately usable by the pilots and flight crews who were actually flying sorties.

His voice was unique and it will be missed.

More thoughts on al-Bashir, Sudan, and South Africa

by Jens David Ohlin

I wanted to follow up on my previous post about the inter-branch dispute in the South African government over executing an international arrest warrant against President al-Bashir of Sudan. A South African court issued an order preventing al-Bashir from leaving South Africa, but notwithstanding this decision, the South Africa government appears to have let him escape anyway. It appears to be a case of executive branch defiance of a binding judicial order.

Several readers have suggested that South Africa is not under a legal obligation to arrest al-Bashir because doing so would violate their obligations to Sudan to respect either head of state or diplomatic immunity under either customary international law or the Vienna Convention. Furthermore, article 98 of the Rome Statute specifically says that a party to the Statute need not arrest someone if doing so would conflict with its other international obligations. Some have suggested that either South Africa or the ICC can request a waiver from Sudan, but if no waiver is forthcoming, then South Africa need not execute the arrest warrant pursuant to article 98, which reads:

Article 98: Cooperation with respect to waiver of immunity and consent to surrender
1. The Court may not proceed with a request for surrender or assistance which would require the requested State to act inconsistently with its obligations under international law with respect to the State or diplomatic immunity of a person or property of a third State, unless the Court can first obtain the cooperation of that third State for the waiver of the immunity.
2. The Court may not proceed with a request for surrender which would require the requested State to act inconsistently with its obligations under international agreements pursuant to which the consent of a sending State is required to surrender a person of that State to the Court, unless the Court can first obtain the cooperation of the sending State for the giving of consent for the surrender.

This is an old debate, with important and excellent contributions from scholars such as Paola Gaeta and Dapo Akande. I want to make a quick point here and just broadly sketch out my view on this matter.

Regardless of the correct view on this matter in general, there are specific aspects to this particular dispute with Sudan that are relevant to the legal analysis. It is not just a question of analyzing the Rome Statute, customary international law, and the Vienna Convention. There are other sources of law to consider.

The charges against al-Bashir include genocide. Although the legal obligations regarding the prevention and punishment of genocide originally emerged from the Genocide Convention, they have now risen to customary international law and represent erga omnes obligations. Furthermore, one of those obligations is the duty to prosecute or extradite any individual accused of genocide. This is a jus cogens obligation that prevails over any supposed legal obligation under the law of diplomatic relations. In this case, then, Sudan is under a legal obligation to either prosecute al-Bashir or turn him over to a competent court for trial. Because of this obligation, South Africa would not be violating any duty to Sudan by arresting al-Bashir and sending him to The Hague.

Even if one does not accept this argument, there is a second reason why Sudan is under a legal obligation to turn over al-Bashir, and by extension why South Africa owes no legal obligation to Sudan in this regard. The UN Security Council, in referring the case to the ICC, invoked its Chapter VII powers and directed Sudan to cooperate with the court. As such, Sudan is under an international legal obligation to cooperate with the court. Since this legal obligation is binding and stems from the Security Council’s Chapter VII authority, it prevails over any conflicting legal obligation. This principle is embodied in Article 103 of the Charter but is also customary law and part of the necessary architecture of our modern Charter-based collective security regime.

(Just to be clear, the details of this analysis need to be flushed out; for purposes of blogging brevity, this was the outline of the argument.)

Bashir Leaves South Africa

by Jens David Ohlin

I’m not one to get hysterical over ICC news, but this recent development today strikes me as deeply problematic, and perhaps a tipping point. But perhaps not the tipping point that the ICC detractors have in mind.

Sudanese President al-Bashir was attending a conference in South Africa this weekend with other heads of state and officials from several African nations. The government of South Africa took the position that Bashir was entitled to immunity and could not be arrested; apparently, this was Bashir’s assumption as well, otherwise I doubt he would have traveled to South Africa in the first place.

However, a South African court ruled that Bashir should be arrested, since South Africa voluntarily signed the Rome Statute and has a legal obligation as a member of the court to execute its arrest warrants. You will recall that the Sudan case began as a Chapter VII referral from the UN Security Council.

In response, the South African government whisked Bashir out of the country, apparently in open defiance of a judicial order preventing them from letting him leave, and just hours before the Supreme Court of South Africa ruled that the government was under a legal obligation to arrest him and explicitly finding that the government’s failure to arrest him would be contrary to the South African Constitution.

From the outside looking in, this looks awfully close to being on the precipice of a constitutional crisis in South Africa. Although one would expect inter-branch disputes in any divided government, such open defiance of a binding judicial order strikes me as deeply harmful to the rule of law. From news reports, I see no evidence that the original judicial order was suspended or otherwise not operative in the hours preceding the Supreme Court’s decision. (But if a reader from South Africa knows the specifics on this question, and the news reports are wrong, please educate us in the comments section.)

What will the ICC do? It strikes me that this level of open defiance — not just of the ICC but also of one’s own judiciary — takes the failure to arrest Bashir to a whole new level. Some will no doubt suggest that this entails that the ICC is a sham with no real power or authority. I take the opposite conclusion. I wonder if this brazenness will now force either the ICC Assembly of State Parties or the Security Council to finally engage in some enforcement actions against states who are not cooperating with the ICC on this matter. Indeed, I would think that the Assembly of State Parties is the appropriate body to take decisive action on this matter. Not only has the ICC concluded that Bashir must be arrested, head of state immunity notwithstanding, but apparently the South African Supreme Court agreed as well. So what excuse can the South African government muster? It would seem that neither international nor even domestic law supports their position, thus weakening the rhetorical power of their arguments. They cannot even suggest that they were caught between their international and domestic obligations.

Of course, I am not an expert on South African law. In the US it is very difficult to get a court to issue an order demanding that the executive arrest someone. (A writ of mandamus in that context would be highly unusual.) Usually the judiciary does the opposite: tells the executive to release someone they have arrested. But South African law might be different in that respect, as indeed are civil law jurisdictions that allow for the triggering of the criminal process in ways other than the discretionary arrest of the suspect by the police. Again, I’d appreciate any information on South African procedure that readers might have.

UPDATE: The name of the court that issued the ruling was the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.

Will Al-Bahlul’s Appeal of his Conspiracy Conviction go to the Supreme Court?

by Jens David Ohlin

On Friday, the DC Circuit vacated al-Bahlul’s military commission conviction for conspiracy. There has been, and will be, much coverage of this decision, especially since the decision is a great candidate for a successful Supreme Court cert petition. Assuming that the federal government wants to appeal, which I can’t imagine it would not, the case would allow the Supreme Court to return to an issue — conspiracy as a substantive offense — that it has not addressed since Hamdan (which left many crucial questions unanswered due to the fractured nature of the majority opinion and Justice Kennedy’s unwillingness to take a position on the conspiracy issue). So Bahlul is ripe for SCOTUS consideration.

There are many aspects of the lengthy DC circuit opinion, and others have discussed the Article III issues in greater depth and detail, including Steve Vladeck, Peter Margulies, Steve Vladeck again, and others.  Some are more interested in the constitutional question about what constraints exist on military commission jurisdiction as an exception to the usual constitutional requirements of an Article III court (a judge with life tenure, etc.).

But what interests me more is the government’s argument that although conspiracy is not a violation of the international law of war, there is still sufficient evidence that conspiracy is triable before military commissions as a matter of domestic “common law of war,” something akin to the precedent of military commissions.  In the past I have wondered aloud about the details of this bizarre argument. So what I found most interesting in the DC Circuit’s opinion is that they do not push back as strongly as I would have liked on the government’s methodological framing of this argument, and instead push back on the paucity of evidence for its conclusion. Here is the specific paragraph that interests me:

The history of inchoate conspiracy being tried by law of war military tribunals is thin by comparison and equivocal at best. The government has identified only a handful of ambiguous examples, and none in which an inchoate conspiracy conviction was affirmed by the Judicial Branch. The examples are unpersuasive in themselves and insufficient to establish a longstanding historical practice (page 18).

The opinion then goes on to note the problematic precedent of the Lincoln assassination case, which was prosecuted before a military commission. Although conspiracy was one of the charges, the decision notes that the relationship between conspiracy and the completed offense was totally unclear in the case. (Whatever one thinks of the Lincoln assassination case as a precedent, it was clearly not a case of pure inchoate conspiracy, since the conspiracy was not frustrated and it succeeded in killing Lincoln).) Furthermore, while the Quirin conspirators during World War II were charged with conspiracy, the Supreme Court made no mention of the conspiracy charges when it upheld their convictions from the military commission, preferring instead to rest its analysis on the sabotage charge.

Finally, the majority notes that although Thomas’ dissent in Hamdan clearly relied on inchoate conspiracy as a part of the domestic common law of war, the majority contends that at most there were only three votes for this position at the time of Hamdan. To the extent that other justices referred to the common law of war in Hamdan (the Stevens opinion), it was used as a source of constraint, rather than expansion, for the jurisdiction of the military commissions.

(One problem I noted in reading the opinion is that on page 37 of the opinion the majority refers to JCE and aiding and abetting as “offenses against the law of war,” instead of referring to them as modes of liability or legal doctrines. Not sure why they would say that.)

Of course, I’ve left out  a host of other constitutional issues that are important in this case, in part because what concerns me is the fate of conspiracy under the law of war, and how courts should understand the “law of war” as a body of law. Part of what makes this case so fascinating is that the government and the defense have radically different ideas of what the law of war is. Although the majority opinion in Bahlul does not explicitly resolve this question, it does say on multiple occasions that both the Quirin and Hamdan holdings were based on the international law of war.

Will the Supreme Court grant cert in this case? I am inclined to say yes, simply because hearing this case will help clarify the jurisdiction of military commissions in both a general and specific sense. The general element is that the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to clarify how and why military commissions operate as exceptions to the Article III requirement. The specific element is that the Supreme Court can clarify its position on the crime of conspiracy, which continues to be at issue in terrorism prosecutions.