The ACLU loses its nasty suit against former defense officials.
By The Wall Street Journal
(published January 28, 2012)
The guerrilla legal campaign against national security suffered a big defeat this week, and the good news deserves more attention. The victory for legal sanity came Monday when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision to toss out a suit brought by aspiring terrorist Jose Padilla against a slew of Bush Administration officials.
Readers may remember that Padilla was arrested in 2002 for plotting to set off a dirty bomb on U.S. soil. He was detained as an enemy combatant, convicted in a Miami court and sentenced to 17 years in prison. But Padilla has been adopted as a legal mascot by the ACLU and the National Litigation Project at Yale Law School, which have sued far and wide alleging mistreatment and lack of due process.
Padilla may in fact have had more due process than any defendant in history. His case has been ruled on by no fewer than 10 civilian courts, and as a prisoner in the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina from 2002 to 2006 he received the benefit of protections under the highly disciplined U.S. Code of Military Justice. Your average bank robber should be so lucky.
But the lawyers suing for Padilla aren’t interested in justice. They’re practicing “lawfare,” which is an effort to undermine the war on terror by making U.S. officials afraid to pursue it for fear of personal liability.
The ACLU and the rest of the legal left have failed to persuade several Congresses and two Administrations to agree to their anti-antiterror policies. So instead they’re suing former officials in civilian court to harass them and damage their reputations. It’s shameful stuff, and if it succeeds it would have the effect of making Pentagon officials look over their shoulder at potential lawsuits every time they had to make a difficult military or interrogation decision.
In Lebron v. Rumsfeld et al., the ACLU sued under the Supreme Court’s 1971 Bivens decision, which has been interpreted as creating a right of action against the federal government. Their targets included a retinue of Pentagon officials, starting with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and going down to the Navy brig commander where Padilla was held. Mr. Rumsfeld doesn’t have to worry about getting another job, but the ACLU wants to make lower-level officials politically radioactive so they have a difficult time getting promoted or working in any influential position.
The good news is that the Fourth Circuit’s three-judge panel saw this for what it was and unanimously rejected the claims. In his 39-page opinion, the influential Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that the Constitution gives authority over military affairs to Congress and to the President as Commander in Chief, but it never created a similar role for the courts.
“It takes little enough imagination,” Judge Wilkinson wrote, “to understand that a judicially devised damages action would expose past executive deliberations . . . [and] would affect future discussions as well, shadowed as they might be by the thought that those involved would face prolonged civil litigation and potential personal liability.”
The decision is especially notable because one of the three judges is Clinton appointee Diana Motz, who has been a skeptic of the Bush Administration’s detainee policies and has dissented from her colleagues in cases like 2003’s Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.
The ACLU may appeal to all of the Fourth Circuit judges, but Judge Wilkinson’s ruling is comprehensive enough that an appeal is unlikely to prevail. The judges deserve credit for understanding that the Constitution gave war powers to the political branches, not to courts. The country will be safer for it.