619 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2010), 09-5051, Al-Bihani v. Obama

Docket Nº:09-5051.
Citation:619 F.3d 1
Party Name:Ghaleb Nassar AL-BIHANI, Appellant v. Barack OBAMA, President of the United States, et al., Appellees.
Attorney:Shereen Joy Charlick, Esquire, Steven Francis Hubachek, Esquire, Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., San Diego, CA, for Appellant. Matthew M. Collette, Douglas N. Letter, Esquire, Robert Mark Loeb, U.S. Department of Justice, R. Craig Lawrence, U.S. Attorney's Office, Washington, DC, for Appell...
Judge Panel:BEFORE: SENTELLE, Chief Judge, and GINSBURG, HENDERSON, ROGERS, TATEL, GARLAND, BROWN, GRIFFITH, and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges. SENTELLE, Chief Judge, and GINSBURG, HENDERSON, ROGERS, TATEL, GARLAND, and GRIFFITH, Circuit Judges, concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc: BROWN, Circuit Judge...
Case Date:August 31, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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619 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2010)

Ghaleb Nassar AL-BIHANI, Appellant

v.

Barack OBAMA, President of the United States, et al., Appellees.

No. 09-5051.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

August 31, 2010

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:05-cv-01312).

Shereen Joy Charlick, Esquire, Steven Francis Hubachek, Esquire, Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., San Diego, CA, for Appellant.

Matthew M. Collette, Douglas N. Letter, Esquire, Robert Mark Loeb, U.S. Department of Justice, R. Craig Lawrence, U.S. Attorney's Office, Washington, DC, for Appellees.

BEFORE: SENTELLE, Chief Judge, and GINSBURG, HENDERSON, ROGERS, TATEL, GARLAND, BROWN, GRIFFITH, and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges.

ORDER

On Petition for Rehearing En Banc

Appellant's petition for rehearing en banc and the response thereto were circulated to the full court, and a vote was requested. Thereafter, a majority of the judges eligible to participate did not vote in favor of the petition. Upon consideration of the foregoing and the brief of amici curiae, it is

ORDERED

that the petition be denied.

* A statement by Chief Judge Sentelle and Circuit Judges Ginsburg, Henderson, Rogers, Tatel, Garland, and Griffith, concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc, is attached.

* A statement by Circuit Judge Brown, concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc, is attached.

* A statement by Circuit Judge Kavanaugh, concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc, is attached.

* A statement by Senior Circuit Judge Williams is attached.

SENTELLE, Chief Judge, and GINSBURG, HENDERSON, ROGERS, TATEL, GARLAND, and GRIFFITH, Circuit Judges, concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc:

We decline to en banc this case to determine the role of international law-of-war principles in interpreting the AUMF because, as the various opinions issued in the case indicate, the panel's discussion of that question is not necessary to the disposition of the merits. See Al-Bihani v. Obama, 590 F.3d 866, 871, 873-74 (D.C.Cir.2010) (panel opinion); id. at 883-85 (Williams, J., concurring in the judgment); Al-Bihani v. Obama, No. 09-5051, slip op. at 1 (D.C.Cir. Aug. 31, 2010) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc); see also Gov't's Resp. to Pet. for Reh'g and Reh'g En Banc at 1-2 (stating that the dispute over the role of the law of war does not " change[ ] the outcome" ).

BROWN, Circuit Judge, concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc:

Denial is the fate of most requests for en banc review, and almost all requests meet that fate quietly without comment from the court. I would prefer to follow the usual pattern here. But this, it seems, is no usual case. Neither the government's response to the request for rehearing nor the opinions accompanying

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the denial can be described as " usual." Al-Bihani's petition requests the court take the radical step of incorporating all of international law as judicially enforceable constraints on the President's war powers. The government responds ambivalently, adopting the questionable strategy of conceding Al-Bihani's point, but nonetheless urging denial of rehearing. Seven members of this court now vote to deny the petition, but append a cryptic statement that exhibits no apparent function other than to mystify. One judge offers a scholarly exegesis on the unenforceability of international law norms as limits on the President's war-making authority under the AUMF. And last, another judge contributes a separate opinion that conceives of a brave new role for judges in wartime: that of supervisors of the battlefield.

These are unusual developments, indeed, and their cumulative effect is to muddy the clear holding of Al-Bihani that international law as a whole does not limit the AUMF's grant of war powers. Although we have avoided en banc review, we have done so through the costly expedient of making a rather common-place judicial proposition impenetrably obscure. Clarity in law is a virtue. In the context of war, that virtue becomes a life-and-death necessity. But there appears to be a countervailing motivation behind the court's resistance to Al-Bihani 's holding: an intuition about the domestic role of international law, one that moves below the surface of the briefs and opinions of this en banc petition process. Hoping to avoid a resolution that leaves all parties in doubt about international law's relation to the AUMF, I write separately to pull the veil back on that intuition and provide as much clarity as possible.

The Al-Bihani opinion held as " mistaken" the " premise that the war powers granted by" the AUMF and other statutes " are limited by the international laws of war." Al-Bihani v. Obama, 590 F.3d 866, 871 (D.C.Cir.2010). This holding disposed of Al-Bihani's international law-based claims and instead hinged the resolution of his case on " the text of relevant statutes and controlling domestic caselaw." Id. at 871-72.

Although Al-Bihani's rehearing petition challenges the panel opinion on numerous points, it is his challenge to this holding that has caused consternation. Seven judges have embraced a peculiar concurrence that strives to make clear that the holding was not necessary to the disposition of the case, providing four citations to that effect. But the concurrence leaves unclear the reason why this uncontroversial point is relevant. We grant rehearing when a panel opinion creates a conflict with Supreme Court or circuit precedent, or when a case presents a question we deem exceptionally important. See FED. R.APP. P. 35(a). Neither of these criteria is affected when an opinion's disposition is supported by two independently sufficient alternative holdings.

Perhaps the seven-member concurrence is implying that the holding at issue is dictum-a position for which Judge Williams argued explicitly in his separate opinion at the panel stage, see Al-Bihani, 590 F.3d at 885 (Williams, J., concurring). Under this view, the holding would therefore be incapable of either creating a conflict with prior law or presenting an important question. But this notion would be incorrect. It is a longstanding principle that alternative holdings each possess precedential effect. See United States v. Title Ins. & Trust Co., 265 U.S. 472, 486, 44 S.Ct. 621, 68 L.Ed. 1110 (1924) ( " [W]here there are two grounds, upon either of which an appellate court may rest its decision, and it adopts both, the

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ruling on neither is obiter [dictum], but each is the judgment of the court, and of equal validity with the other." ); see also Woods v. Interstate Realty Co., 337 U.S. 535, 537, 69 S.Ct. 1235, 93 L.Ed. 1524 (1949); Commonwealth of Mass. v. United States, 333 U.S. 611, 623, 68 S.Ct. 747, 92 L.Ed. 968 (1948). Therefore, if the majority of this court believes the holding at issue would otherwise satisfy one or both of the en banc rehearing criteria, a grant of rehearing cannot be avoided by labeling the holding as unnecessary. Nor will future litigants be able to avoid the holding's binding authority by wielding the same label.

Another possible motivation for the concurrence may be a desire to accommodate both the government's eager concession that international law does in fact limit the AUMF and the government's argument that its opinion on the matter is entitled to " substantial deference." 1 Resp. to Petition for Rehearing, at 6-8 & n. 3. But such a motivation would be illegitimate. Contrary to the government's claim, its preferred statutory interpretation warrants no deference from this court. A " pure question of statutory construction [is] for the courts to decide," INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 446, 107 S.Ct. 1207, 94 L.Ed.2d 434 (1987), and doing so-even when a statute concerns foreign affairs-is " well within the province of the Judiciary," Repub. of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677, 701, 124 S.Ct. 2240, 159 L.Ed.2d 1 (2004). Of course, courts are highly deferential when reviewing challenges to executive actions taken pursuant to a grant of wide discretion " to affect a situation in a foreign territory." United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304, 321, 57 S.Ct. 216, 81 L.Ed. 255 (1936). We will refrain from requiring " narrowly definite standards by which the President is to be governed" and will not lightly endeavor to " limit[ ] or embarrass [ ] such powers." Id. at 322, 57 S.Ct. 216.2 However, even when courts consider the Executive's historic practice to inform the interpretation of a statute, they are not imbuing the President with judicial power.

I sense, then, something more significant than a narrow concern over dictum or deference at work in the seven-member concurrence. There is in the scholarly community an intuition that domestic statutes do not stand on their own authority, but rather rest against the backdrop of international norms. This intuition has taken many argumentative forms, some more emphatic than others. For instance, there are those scholars who believe domestic statutes are merely suggestive wordings to which courts can and should append international legal norms, regardless of congressional intent.3 Others are more shy, imparting to Congress a general

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intent to legislate in conformity with international law and therefore reasoning that all statutes, unless containing a clear statement otherwise, should be read by courts to incorporate international legal norms.4 However this intuition is phrased, perhaps the majority of judges on this court are apprehensive about unambiguously rejecting it. So, even though the panel decision foreclosed the idea, the short concurrence may represent a wish to leave open a...

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