Detention & Guantanamo

David Remes on the D.C. Circuit

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, June 8, 2011, 6:21 PM

Habeas lawyer David Remes sent in the following comments on recent developments in D.C. Circuit case law. He emphasizes that he has been counsel in several of the cases discussed below and that the following represents his own opinion only:

I agree with my colleague Richard Murphy (here) that for Guantánamo detainees, seeking habeas relief has proven to be an exercise in futility. The D.C. Circuit appears to be dead-set against letting them prevail. It has not affirmed a grant in any habeas case, and it has remanded any denial that it did not affirm.

Moreover, the Supreme Court, having declared in Boumediene that detainees have a constitutional right to seek habeas relief, appears to have washed its hands of the matter. It denied review in every case brought to it by detainees this Term, including one, Kiyemba III, which eliminated the habeas remedy itself.

The D.C. Circuit has decided twelve habeas appeals on the merits. In four, the detainee prevailed in the district court; in eight, the government prevailed. The D.C. Circuit erased all four detainee wins. It reversed two outright (Adahi, Uthman) and remanded the other two (Salahi, Hatim). By contrast, the court affirmed six of the eight government wins (al-Bihani, Awad, Barhoumi, al Odah, Esmail, Madhwani), remanding the other two (Bensayah, Warafi).

In two critical non-merits cases, the D.C. Circuit held in Kiyemba I and III that the district court cannot compel the government to release a detainee found to be unlawfully held; and in Kiyemba II, the court effectively barred the district court from enjoining the release of a detainee to a country where he fears he will be tortured. Because the Supreme Court denied review in both cases, only Congress can overrule them. Unless Congress removes from the Executive the discretion to decide whether to release a prevailing detainee, I don’t see what practical difference legislation making substantive or procedural improvements in Guantánamo habeas litigation can make.

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The D.C. Circuit's methodology is even more revealing. When a detainee prevails in district court, the D.C. Circuit fashions, if necessary, a rule that rationalizes reversal or remand. When a detainee loses in district court, the D.C. Circuit sometimes uses the appeal as an occasion to tilt the law even further against detainees.

For example, in al-Bihani (who lost in district court), Judge Brown appeared to accept the government’s contention that any guesthouse where an alleged al Qaeda member stayed is an "al Qaeda guesthouse," and that any detainee who stayed at an “al-Qaeda guesthouse” is, ipso facto, a member or supporter of al-Qaeda. She implicitly excluded the possibility that a guesthouse can be used by al-Qaeda members and still be a public guesthouse.

In al-Adahi (who won in district court), Judge Randolph created the “conditional probability” test. Under this test, as Lyle Denniston distilled it (here), “each assertion is to be considered, not for what it says by itself, but how it might make the next assertion seem more solid, and so on, so that the overall weight adds up to enough to support detention.” Citing Judge Silberman’s concurrence in Esmail, Steve Vladeck has suggested (here) that the test, in effect, reduces the “preponderance” standard to a “some evidence” standard.

Or consider Uthman (who won in district court). In earlier cases, including al-Adahi, the D.C. Circuit criticized district court judges for taking an “unduly atomized” approach to the evidence when ruling for detainees, and instructed them to consider “all of the evidence” as a whole. Judge Kennedy did precisely that in granting Uthman's petition. On appeal, however, Judge Kavanaugh cherry-picked the government’s evidence and tossed aside Uthman’s, reversing the district court and finding Uthman lawfully held.

In Mahdwani (who lost in district court), Judge Henderson treated as “strong evidence” of culpability the fact that a detainee gave an exculpatory account of events that the district court does not credit. This conclusion isn’t logical or fair. There could be any number of reasons a detainee offered an exculpability account. Ironically, a detainee who says nothing is better off than a detainee who offers an account of the facts that the district court doesn’t credit.

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Two factors appear to animate the D.C. Circuit's apparent determination to rule against detainees. The first, exemplified by Judges Randolph and Silberman, is unabashed hostility to Boumediene. They have made quite clear that that they think Boumediene was wrongly decided, and Judge Randolph, in particular, takes every opportunity to undermine it. For example, he wrote Kiyemba I, and probably the per curiam in Kiyemba III, which eliminated the habeas remedy.

The other factor is pragmatic, stated frankly by Judge Silberman in his Esmail concurrence. Invoking al-Adahi, he stated:

That means that there are powerful reasons for the government to rely on our opinion in Al-Adahi v. Obama, which persuasively explains that in a habeas corpus proceeding the preponderance of evidence standard that the government assumes binds it, is unnecessary—and moreover, unrealistic. I doubt any of my colleagues will vote to grant a petition if he or she believes that it is somewhat likely that the petitioner is an al Qaeda adherent or an active supporter. Unless, of course, the Supreme Court were to adopt the preponderance of the evidence standard (which it is unlikely to do—taking a case might obligate it to assume direct responsibility for the consequences of Boumediene v. Bush). But I, like my colleagues, certainly would release a petitioner against whom the government could not muster even “some evidence.”

As Steve Vladeck observed (here), “one might fairly read [this concurrence] as suggesting that [Judge Silberman]—and at least some of his colleagues—are in fact reviewing the government’s case only for ‘some evidence,’ rather than the ‘more evidence than not’ requirement of the preponderance standard.”

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Ben has noted (here) that even though no prevailing detainee has been released as the result of a court order, the government has in fact released those detainees whose grants it decided not to appeal. That's true, but this could be happenstance, because the government has released hundreds of detainees who never filed cases. In any event, as the D.C. Circuit continues to shape the law to prevent detainees from winning cases, it will not be surprising if the government appeals in every case in which the detainee prevails.