A ruling issued Monday by a deeply divided Supreme Court may make it more difficult to sue high-level government officials on charges of misconduct.
The court's ruling came in the case of a Pakistani man who sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller on behalf of Arab Muslim men rounded up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subjected to harsh treatment in prison.
Post-Sept. 11 Roundups
Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani native living on Long Island with his American wife, was among hundreds arrested after Sept. 11, 2001, on immigration charges. He claims that solely because of his Muslim heritage, he was classified as a "person of high interest" and subjected to brutal treatment while detained in prison. He says he was beaten, strip-searched several times a day, exposed to extreme heat and cold, and kept in solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day for six months.
A report by the Justice Department inspector general later criticized government officials for establishing a system of harsh conditions for men held on baseless leads that the FBI took months to investigate. Iqbal was eventually cleared of any terrorism charges.
But he had violated the law: While his application for a green card was pending, he had used someone else's Social Security number. He pleaded guilty, and he was eventually deported.
The story did not end there, though. Iqbal and another man sued over their treatment in prison, alleging that they were subjected to harsh conditions solely because they were Arab Muslims. The other man settled his suit; the government paid $300,000 in damages. But Iqbal's case continued.
Among those named as defendants in Iqbal's case were prison guards and other officials, including Ashcroft and Mueller. The lawsuit charged that Ashcroft was the principal architect of a policy based on invidious discrimination, and that Mueller was instrumental in its adoption and execution.
The lower courts allowed the case to go forward, declaring that Iqbal had a plausible claim, and the government appealed to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Iqbal's lawsuit did not state a plausible claim.
Writing for the court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that in order to win this case, Iqbal would have to show that Ashcroft and Mueller intentionally singled out Arab Muslims on the basis of their religion or national origin for imprisonment and special harsh treatment.
Kennedy said the justices did not reject these claims because they are nonsensical or fanciful, but because they are stated as conclusions without support.
It should come as no surprise, Kennedy said, that in the wake of a devastating attack, law enforcement policymakers would direct the arrest of those with a suspected link to al-Qaida and that this policy would have a disproportionate, but incidental, effect on Muslims.
Case Not Dead
Iqbal's lawsuit is not dead, however. The court specifically left intact the ongoing lawsuit against prison guards and low-level officials. And it did not foreclose the possibility of the lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller continuing.
Lawyers representing Iqbal said Monday that they would seek to amend their complaint to keep the lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller alive.
Cardozo law professor Alexander Reinert, one of Iqbal's attorneys, conceded that Monday's ruling makes his task more difficult, but he downplayed its significance.
"The court's decision clearly contemplates that individuals such as [former Attorney] General Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller can be held liable, provided sufficient allegations are made and those allegations are proven. And so in that sense, we don't think it stops us in our tracks at all," Reinert says. "It's a temporary detour, but we intend to continue with our case against these defendants."
ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt, who was not involved in this case, echoed that sentiment.
"Taking the opinion at its word, I do not think it sets up an insurmountable barrier," Gelernt says. "I also have no doubt these plaintiffs will likely be able to get over the barrier on remand and to replead their case, given everything we know that's come out since this complaint was filed — including what the Justice Department itself found in an internal report."
Gelernt acknowledged, however, that there is a danger in today's ruling for people seeking redress throughout the entire legal system if, in his words, it is "overread" by the lower courts.
"If you set up too high a barrier, what you essentially do is mean that no one can be sued at a level above people on the ground," Gelernt says.