South Carolina judge rules that Padilla has no right to pursue torture charges in Padilla v. Rumsfeld

[ASIL] The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina has dismissed all claims of torture and abuse by Jose Padilla against several current and former government officials stemming from his capture, interrogation, and subsequent classification as enemy combatant. The judge also ruled that, even if Padilla were allowed to sue, the current and former Pentagon officials he sued would be legally immune to all such charges, since the law governing detention was so uncertain at the time he was held.

Padilla, a U.S. citizen currently serving a prison sentence on various federal charges in connection with his support of Al Qaeda, sued numerous government officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that his detention as an enemy combatant and the treatment experienced during his detention violated his federal statutory and constitutional rights. The government defendants claimed, inter alia, that there exists no private right of action against them and that they are entitled to qualified immunity. 

Padilla was arrested in 2002 at O’Hare International Airport and held thereafter for several years without access to counsel. His case then traveled through the various federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He was eventually sentenced to seventeen years and four months imprisonment, a sentence he is currently appealing. Padilla is claiming that his detention and designation as an enemy combatant violated his rights to counsel, access to the courts, freedom of religion, freedom of association, due process, and his right against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The district court first recognized that Congress “never created a private right of action against federal officials based upon a deprivation of constitutional rights;” however, in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a private civil cause of action for money damages was implied in the U.S. Constitution. This ruling was later broadened to include civil claims against other federal agencies. Padilla claimed that Bivens and its progeny encompass his claims against the government officials for the alleged treatment he suffered at their hands.  The district court disagreed, ruling that subsequent jurisprudence by numerous federal circuits and the U.S. Supreme Court clearly demonstrated that Bivens is to be construed narrowly, thus excluding Padilla’s claims. 

The district court then went on to discuss the qualified immunity defense espoused by the government officials, concluding that all defendants were protected by the immunity because at the time the challenged governmental actions occurred, there were no “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which a reasonable person would have known.”

As Lyle Deniston notes:

The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel of Charleston conflicts directly with a ruling nearly two years ago by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of San Francisco, in a nearly identical case also brought by Padilla. White allowed a lawsuit against former Justice Department official John Yoo to go forward, on the theory that Yoo wrote official memoes justifying “coercive interrogation” of detainees. including Padilla.  The White decision is now under review in the Ninth Circuit Court; Judge Gergel’s ruling is expected to be appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court.

Lawfare blog provides the transcript of the hearing here.

ACLU page on the case: here.

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