An important thing to understand about the US Supreme Court is that its rulings can often seem narrow and technical even as they have sweeping repercussions for every American. That was the case with two rulings that were issued late last month, just as the court’s annual term came to an end. In both cases the Court might have appeared to be focused on narrow issues that concern mainly other courts and lawyers when, in fact, it was issuing rulings that will have a profound impact on our justice system in general and on Americans’ ability to seek redress in our courts.
The first case, Ziglar v Abbasi focuses on the arrest and detention of hundreds of Muslim men in the wake of 9/11. Though most of the men were held for immigration violations they were treated as suspected terrorists and, in numerous cases, subjected to unusually harsh interrogations and prison conditions. A group of these men sued the government for damages, citing a 1971 Supreme Court decision that allowed state and local officials to be sued for damages when they violate a person’s constitutional rights. The legal question seemed fairly straightforward: one might assume that if state officials can be sued for violating people’s rights federal officials too can be sued when they do so. By a vote of 4-2, however, the Supreme Court disagreed (two justices recused themselves from the case and the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, had not yet joined the court when the case was argued).
The important thing to understand is that as a legal precedent effecting ordinary Americans the fact that this case involved egregious rights violations in the aftermath of a terrorist attack is not the point. Using the national security implications of that extreme event as a pretext the court has made it far more difficult for any citizen to sue any employee of the federal government. Put simply: this is not about terrorism and national security, it is about our constitutional right to have access to the courts when a government official abuses his or her power.