[Harold Hongju Koh is Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. He served as Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State, from 2009-13 and Counsel of Record for plaintiffs in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, from 1992-93.]
Why, two decades later, does the Sale v. Haitian Centers Council litigation still spark such interest? This year alone, symposia about the litigation have transpired at law schools at Yale, Columbia, Howard, Brooklyn, and in London. The case has been dissected in first-year Procedure Classes at Yale, Columbia, Touro, University of Connecticut, and New York Law Schools, just to name a few, using as texts Brandt Goldstein’s absorbing nonfiction novel Storming the Court, and his Storming the Court: A Documentary Companion, compiled with co-authors Professors Rodger Citron and Molly Beutz Land.
These texts tell the tale of a complex bifurcated lawsuit brought by a class of “screened-in” refugees and their lawyers against the U.S. Government, challenging first, the long-term detention of Haitians on Guantanamo, and second, starting in May, 1993, their direct return to Haiti following interdiction on the high seas. Remarkably, the two halves of this frenetic case—which rocketed to the Supreme Court eight times in just fifteen months—ended on the same day in June 1993. The Direct Return half of the case concluded with an 8-1 defeat for the Haitians at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the nonrefoulement obligations of 8 U.S.C. sec. 1253(h) and Art. 33 of the Refugee Convention do not apply on high seas. But on that same day, in the Illegal Detention wing of the lawsuit, some 200 HIV+ Haitian refugees detained for months on Guantanamo were released following trial, pursuant to a permanent injunction granted by Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr. of the Eastern District of New York. “Although the [U.S. government] defendants euphemistically refer to its Guantánamo operation as a ‘humanitarian camp,’” Judge Johnson wrote, “the facts disclose that it is nothing more than an H.I.V. prison camp presenting potential public health risks to the Haitians held there.”
This Opinio Juris Symposium just concluded reveals that, even decades after Sale ended, its story keeps repeating. In particular, as the excellent contributions to this symposium have illustrated, Sale leaves behind three competing legacies. The first is the continuing governmental search for “national security black holes” through techniques of high seas interdiction, offshore detention camps, and theories that human rights law can be displaced by extraterritoriality and the law of armed conflict. But this first legacy has been countered by a second legacy– constantly evolving strategies of transnational legal process and litigation– and a third– rapidly adjusting changes in human rights advocacy and clinical education. Together, the second and third legacies have largely thwarted continuing governmental efforts to construct enduring legal black holes.
In Sale, Justice John Paul Stevens found for eight Justices that the non-return (nonrefoulement) obligations of Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention did not apply on the high seas. As I chronicled shortly after the decision, that conclusion was deeply flawed methodologically: it ignored both the plain text and object and purpose of the treaty and statute. Moreover, the majority ignored contradictory negotiating and legislative history underlying both laws; overly deferred to executive power; and exalted the so-called statutory “presumption against extraterritoriality,” a trend the current Court strengthened in its recent Kiobel decision. Justice Blackmun’s compelling dissent skewered the majority, underscoring not only that the text and meaning of the INA and Refugee Convention were simple and crystalline—“Vulnerable refugees shall not be returned”—but also that that object and purpose would be entirely thwarted if those legal obligations did not apply extraterritoriality to protect fleeing refugees.
Looking back, Justice Stevens’ decision is most striking for its frank and admirable acknowledgement of the “moral weight “ of the Haitians’ claim. Justice Stevens found his own ruling deeply in tension with the spirit of the treaty, but curiously, instead of reading that text consistent with that object and purpose, Justice Stevens found instead that, although “the human crisis is compelling, there is no solution to be found in a judicial remedy.” Internal Court memos unearthed after Sale show that Justice Scalia had objected to the Court’s mere mention of “the moral weight” of the Haitians’ claim, saying “For my taste, that comes too close to acknowledging that it is morally wrong to return these refugees to Haiti, which I do not believe.” To which Justice Stevens responded, “I think it is undeniable that it has some moral weight and I think it would be unfortunate for us to imply that we think it may have none” (emphasis in the original).