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Broad Majority Decisions in Terrorist Torture and Abortion Law Cases Resolve Important State Secrets and Intervention Procedural Issues: SCOTUS Today

The Court has decided two important cases today, United States v. Zubaydah, upholding the government’s assertion of the state secrets privilege and rejecting the al Qaeda terrorist leader’s discovery request for information concerning his torture by the CIA, and Cameron v. EMW Women’s Surgical Center, P.S.C., allowing the intervention of the Kentucky attorney general to assume the defense of the state’s abortion law after the official who had been defending the law decided not to seek further review. Both cases are, at root, about significant issues of public interest and policy—the torture of terrorists and restrictive abortion policies—but neither opinion resolves any such question. Indeed, the lessons learned from each of these cases are essentially procedural, and though the outcomes are determined by significant margins, the alliances of Justices on the multiple opinions published are also instructive.

Zubaydah has been among the most closely watched cases on the Court’s docket. Full disclosure: I am a board member of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, which has advocated for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, where Zubaydah is detained, and for the rejection of privilege claims as to non-classified information concerning torture. Though I am not surprised by the outcome in the case, it is contrary to what many human rights organizations have been advocating. The admixtures of Justices also provide interesting insights as to how they approach matters of privilege and national security.

In what likely will be one of the last majority opinions written by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, and subject to various concurrences by Justices Thomas, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and upheld the government’s assertion of state secrets privilege to deny Zubaydah’s attempt to subpoena two CIA contractors from whom he sought to obtain information for use in litigation in Poland concerning his torture at an alleged “black site” in that country. The state secrets privilege allows the government to bar the disclosure of information that, were it revealed, would harm national security. United States v. Reynolds, 345 U. S. 1, 6–7 (1953). While the Ninth Circuit had accepted much of the government’s claim, it concluded that the privilege did not cover information about the location of the detention site, which the court believed had already been publicly disclosed. Indeed, it is clear from the record in the case that there has been substantial public discussion of such a detention site in Poland. However, although the government has concluded that the “enhanced interrogation” to which Zubaydah had been subjected constituted torture, the fact of its location in Poland has never been formally confirmed by the United States. The state secrets privilege permits the government to prevent disclosure of information when that disclosure would harm national security interests, such as “the risk of revealing covert operatives, organizational structure and functions, and intelligence-gathering sources, methods, and capabilities.” Here, Justice Breyer, in a textbook case displaying the essential role that he has played on the Court in pragmatically fashioning majorities to form consensus opinions in controversial cases, accepted the view that verifying the existence, or non-existence, of a CIA black site in Poland, falls within the state secrets privilege because confirmation or denial of the site’s existence and location, even if such information has already been made public through unofficial sources, would harm relations among foreign intelligence services vital to U.S. interests. The majority also noted that the locational information is not essential to the case that Zubaydah is attempting to make, but it also rejected the remand to consider issues of Zubaydah’s treatment that Justices Kagan, concurring, and Justice Gorsuch (interestingly, joined by Justice Sotomayor), dissenting, would have allowed. In a case where there is virtually no disagreement among the Justices as to what the law is, the decision comes down to a procedural formulation that Justice Breyer loosely compares to applying exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act. In any event, the majority held that, as an objective matter, the government’s assertions of privilege and national security risk satisfied its burden of responding to the demand for information.

Notwithstanding the great public interest that surrounds the debate and litigation concerning the efforts of various state legislatures to restrict abortion and to obtain the reversal or narrowing of Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 8-1 majority (only Justice Sotomayor dissented) held only that the Court would not adopt an arbitrary claims-processing rule barring a non-party intervener from taking over an appeal, especially under the conditions presented here. Having first concluded that neither a jurisdictional requirement nor a mandatory claims-processing rule barred consideration of the attorney general’s motion, the Court concluded that no statute or rule restricts the jurisdiction of a court of appeals or provides a general standard to apply in deciding whether intervention on appeal should be allowed. The one passing reference to intervention made in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure only concerns the review of agency action. Accordingly, with “respondents cit[ing] no provision that deprives a court of appeals of jurisdiction in the way they suggest, and no such supporting language can be found in 28 U. S. C. §2107, Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 3 and 4, or any other provision of law. . . [the] Court refuses to adopt what would essentially be a categorical claims-processing rule barring consideration of the attorney general’s motion. When a non-party enters into an agreement to be bound by a judgment in accordance with the agreement’s terms, it is hard to see why the non-party should be precluded from seeking intervention on appeal if the agreement preserves that opportunity. Here, the attorney general reserved ‘all rights, claims, and defenses . . . in any appeals arising out of this action.’ That easily covers the right to seek rehearing en banc and the right to file a petition for a writ of certiorari.”

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, like the cheese, stands alone. She argues that every case should have a certain end point, and one should be applied here. One wonders if she would entertain a similar opinion in a case like this but where the plaintiffs are appealing. In any event, all of the other Justices are unified by the absence of any textual limitation on their jurisdiction to entertain a motion to intervene on appeal and the reasonable justification made for it by the state attorney general. Where Justice Alito found a constitutional basis for this conclusion and Justice Kagan would only have relied upon statutory interpretation, the vast majority of the Court agreed on the procedural regime adopted irrespective of the fact that there likely would be considerable disagreement about the constitutionality of the statute at issue in the underlying litigation.

©2022 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 62
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About this Author

Stuart Gerson, Health Care Attorney, Epstein Becker Law Firm
Member of the Firm

STUART M. GERSON is a Member of the Firm in the Litigation and Health Care & Life Sciences practices, in the firm's Washington, DC, and New York offices. Much of Mr. Gerson's practice has been centered on providing representation to clients in the health care industry (including insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers, managed care providers, and private equity funds, among others). He has extensive experience litigating cases involving the cybersecurity of health care information, trade secrets, and other confidential data as well as civil...

202-861-4180
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