Conservative Judicial Activists On The Federal Court of Appeals for D.C. Dismiss Abu Ghraib Lawsuit

In a stunning display of judicial activism, two conservative judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia re-wrote several recent Department of Defense regulations, a sixty-year-old Act of Congress, a basic principle of federalism upheld by dozens of Supreme Court opinions, and millenia of common law to dismiss the Saleh v. Titan Corporation and Ibrahim v. Titan Corporation lawsuits brought by more than a dozen Iraqis who “were beaten, electrocuted, raped, subjected to attacks by dogs, and otherwise abused by private contractors working as interpreters and interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison.” Dissent op., p.1. The United States was not a defendant, nor were the military officers. The lawsuit was solely against the private contractors.

You already know the “allegations” — you’ve probably already seen much of the evidence. There’s no doubt what happened. It was “abhorrent” and “[doesn't] represent America” according to President Bush. Secretary Rumsfeld assured “[t]he people of the Middle East . . . that we will investigate fully, that we will find out the truth . . . and [that] justice will be served.” Dissent op., p. 2. Ilham Nassir Ibrahim isn’t around for justice; he was beaten to death while in captivity. His widow is one of the plaintiffs.

The prohibition on unauthorized violence, even against prisoners, is universal to civilization. Under the Code of Hammurabi, if a prisoner like Ibrahim died “from blows or maltreatment,” the responsible party’s son was put to death. These days, torture for fun and profit without even the pretense of government authorization violates a panolopy of laws, including the Torture Victim Protection Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, numerous common law torts (assault and battery, wrongful death and survival, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence), government contracting laws, and various international laws and agreements.

To cover their bases, the plaintiffs sued under all of them. Surely at least one such claim would survive under centuries-old Anglo-American legal maxim — reaffirmed by the most important Supreme Court decision in our history — that “where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy by suit or action at law whenever that right is invaded?”

The plaintiffs’ claims were strengthened by the absence of any Executive or Congressional action to stop them, despite numerous claims by the private contractors that the federal government had a substantial interest in the outcome of the case. The Bush and Obama administrations both declined to intervene in the case. Congress for a half-century now has authorized dozens of military actions which included the use of private contractors without passing a single law granting them immunity from suit.

The only related Congressional Act — the Federal Tort Claims Act — expressly says it “does not include any contractor with the United States.”  In fact, the only recent relevant action by either the Executive or Legislative branches is a regulation from the Bush-era Department of Defense stating that, for performance-based service contracts, “contractors [are] accountable for the negligent or willful actions of their employees, officers, and subcontractors.” Dissent op., p. 22. The DoD further explained that ““[i]nappropriate use of force could subject a contractor or its subcontractors or employees to prosecution or civil liability under the laws of the United States and the host nation.” Id at p. 21.

The Supreme Court, too, has made it quite clear that, when a government contractor breaches its agreement with the government and thereby causes a third party harm, that contractor is responsible for the harm. In Miree v. DeKalb County, 433 U. S. 25 (1977), the victims of an airplane crash sued a county airport because it “breached the FAA [flight permission] contracts by owning and maintaining a garbage dump adjacent to the airport, and that the cause of the crash was the ingestion of birds swarming from the dump into the jet engines of the aircraft.” After reiterating (consistent with prior law) that “the issue of whether to displace state law on an issue such as this is primarily a decision for Congress” and noting “Congress has chosen not to do so in this case,” the Supreme Court affirmed the victims’ right to sue. Keep that “primarily a decision for Congress” concept, a basic principle of federalism recently upheld in Wyeth v. Levine, in mind — we’ll come back to it later.

Why, then were the Abu Ghraib cases dismissed? Judicial activism, plain and simple: having no act of Congress, no Executive decision (in fact, regulations to the contrary), and no applicable Supreme Court precedent to support their preferred policy outcome, two conservative judges invented an entirely new judicial doctrine.

The judges didn’t say that, of course. They claimed to be applying existing law.

A bit of background is required to see why that’s not true. Though Miree is the general rule for lawsuits brought by third parties injuried by government contractors who breach their contracts, an exception for government manufacturers who perform their contracts properly was created by Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988), where a United States Marine helicopter copilot was killed when his CH-53D helicopter crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach and he drowned. His family brought a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the CH-53D, alleging that the helicopter was defective because escape hatch opened out instead of inward, and thus was impossible to open underwater.

The Supreme Court held the family could not recover against the manufacturer because that design had been specifically required by the government, and thus the federal procurement specification “preempted” any claims of negligence, rendering the contractor immune from suit for following those specifications. Make no mistake: as the Supreme Court later described Boyle, preemption and immunity for government contractors applies only in the “special circumstance” where the “government has directed a contractor to do the very thing that is the subject of the claim.” Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 74 n.6 (2001)(applying the old Miree rule)

It’s a sensible rule, even though one not enacted by Congress (as Miree and long-standing law said it should be). But it’s also a very limited rule: as Justice Scalia wrote for the Supreme Court, it applies where “the asserted basis of the contractor’s liability (specifically, the duty to equip helicopters with the sort of escape-hatch mechanism petitioner claims was necessary) is precisely contrary to the duty imposed by the Government contract (the duty to manufacture and deliver helicopters with the sort of escape-hatch mechanism shown by the specifications).”

Note those words: “precisely contrary.” Scalia even gave an example of where it would not apply, such as where a government merely purchased air-conditioning units without any requirement contrary to a specific safety feature. As Scalia wrote, “no one suggests that state law would generally be preempted” if someone injured by the lack of that safety feature filed a lawsuit. Of course, absolutely no one suggested that a government contractor who breached their contract would be immune. As Scalia wrote, “conflict there must be” between the federal contract requirements and the lawsuit.

Compare “precisely contrary” and “conflict there must be” to Abu Ghraib, where the contractors intentionally breached their contracts through criminal conduct. Such is even less a case for preemption and immunity than Miree, where the breach was negligent, and which was reaffirmed by Boyle. Yet, Boyle is what the conservative judges claimed they were applying:

The nature of the conflict in this case is somewhat different from that in Boyle–a sharp example of discrete conflict in which satisfying both state and federal duties (i.e., by designing a helicopter hatch that opens both inward and outward) was impossible. In the context of the combatant activities exception, the relevant question is not so much whether the substance of the federal duty is inconsistent with a hypothetical duty imposed by the state or foreign sovereign. Rather, it is the imposition per se of the state or foreign tort law that conflicts with the FTCA’s policy of eliminating tort concepts from the battlefield. The very purposes of tort law are in conflict with the pursuit of warfare. Thus, the instant case presents us with a more general conflict preemption, to coin a term, “battle-field preemption”: the federal government occupies the field when it comes to warfare, and its interest in combat is always “precisely contrary” to the imposition of a non-federal tort duty. Boyle, 487 U.S. at 500.

Slip op., p 13.

Did you catch all of that? The conservative judges took a twenty-year-old Supreme Court case admittedly involving the “special circumstance” where a plaintiff sued alleging a government manufacturer should have done the exact opposite of what the government told them to do, then, by way of a federal statute that expressly says it does not apply to contractors (the FTCA), the conservative judges applied that “special circumstances” to immunitize every private contractor in any “battle-field” — which Abu Ghraib certainly wasn’t — who tortures and kills people without even the pretense of governmental authority.

In order to do that, the conservative judges also ran roughshod over the millenia-old prohibition on abusing prisoners, the centuries-old maxim that every right has a remedy, decades of precedent holding that Congress — not the Courts — is responsible for creating immunities, and recent crystal-clear Department of Defense regulations affirming that private contractors remain responsible for their wrongful conduct.

Judicial activism at its finest. Read the opinion yourself, if you dare. I recommend you start with the fine dissent by Judge Garland.

P.S. There’s a reasonable chance the Supreme Court might grant certorari and reverse the opinion. Just this year, Justice Kennedy was part of the Wyeth v. Levine majority that held the Court starts with the presumption that state law is not to be superseded by federal immunities “unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.” 129 S. Ct. 1187, 1194-95 (2009). Keep your fingers crossed.

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  • Phil Chanfrau

    Why not let the case proceed to discovery on all issues before considering a Summary Judgment? By narrowly confining the issue to Pre-emption, the court has placed an impossible roadblock for the plaintiffs to overcome. Better to develop a complete record which will not clearly favor one side over the other, so the court can get a complete view of the facts. This was a brazen, blatant power grab, and the Court needs to be reminded it has a duty to follow the law by the Supreme Court