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Ninth Circuit Decision in Padilla

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 6:05 PM

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court decision allowing Jose Padilla to sue John Yoo. Writing for a unanimous panel consisting of himself, 9th Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith, and Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, a district judge sitting by designation, Judge Raymond C. Fisher writes:

After the September 11, 2011 attacks on the United States, the government detained Jose Padilla, an American citizen, as an enemy combatant. Padilla alleges that he was held incommunicado in military detention, subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and detained under harsh conditions of confinement, all in violation of his constitutional and statutory rights. In this lawsuit, plaintiffs Padilla and his mother, Estela Lebron, seek to hold defendant John Yoo, who was the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from 2001 to 2003, liable for damages they allege they suffered from these unlawful actions. Under recent Supreme Court law, however, we are compelled to conclude that, regardless of the legality of Padilla’s detention and the wisdom of Yoo’s judgments, at the time he acted the law was not “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he [wa]s doing violate[d]” the plaintiffs’ rights. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 2083 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). We therefore hold that Yoo must be granted qualified immunity, and accordingly reverse the decision of the district court.

As we explain below, we reach this conclusion for two reasons. First, although during Yoo’s tenure at OLC the constitutional rights of convicted prisoners and persons subject to ordinary criminal process were, in many respects, clearly established, it was not “beyond debate” at that time that Padilla — who was not a convicted prisoner or criminal defendant, but a suspected terrorist designated an enemy combatant and confined to military detention by order of the President — was entitled to the same constitutional protections as an ordinary convicted prisoner or accused criminal. Id. Second, although it has been clearly established for decades that torture of an American citizen violates the Constitution, and we assume without deciding that Padilla’s alleged treatment rose to the level of torture, that such treatment was torture was not clearly established in 2001-03.

Yoo’s lawyer, Miguel Estrada, emailed me the following statement following the ruling: “The Ninth Circuit’s decision confirms that this litigation has been baseless from the outset.  For several years, Padilla and his attorneys have been harassing the government officials he believes to have been responsible for his detention and ultimately conviction as a terrorist.  He has now lost before two separate courts of appeals, and will need to find a new hobby for his remaining time in prison.”