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Judge Forrest’s Invitation to Congress: Pass the Smith-Amash Amendment

As I noted yesterday, Judge Katherine Forrest from enforcing Section 1021 of last year’s NDAA, because it is having a chilling effect on the First Amendment protected activities of plaintiff’s including Chris Hedges.

There’s an aspect of her ruling that was rather auspiciously timed. Because in addition to enjoining 1021, she invited Congress to fix it.

Accordingly, this Court preliminarily enjoins enforcement of §1021 pending further proceedings in this Court or remedial action by Congress mooting the need for such further proceedings.

As luck would have it, the House is poised to vote today on the Smith-Amash amendment to next year’s NDAA. Their amendment would largely–though perhaps not entirely–“moot the need” for any further proceedings in the Hedges case, because it would eliminate indefinite military detention for those captured in the US.

Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Justin Amash [my Rep] are planning to offer an amendment to this year’s defense authorization bill that would guarantee that no one—citizen or otherwise—could be denied a fair trial if captured in the United States. Smith, who is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, will introduce the bill during a hearing Wednesday. Amash has agreed to support it once the defense bill comes to the floor next week, possibly bringing along enough Republican support to ensure its passage in the House.

“The amendment is drafted to prevent the president from indefinitely detaining persons captured on US soil without charge or trial,” said Will Adams, a spokesperson for Amash.

I spoke to Adams last night, and the Amendment is within striking distance of having enough votes to pass–though the House leadership is trying a bunch of stunts to avoid that outcome.

I said passing this Amendment would mostly moot further proceedings. That’s because Forrest issued her injunction covering all the plaintiffs, including people like Brigitta Jonsdottir, who is an Icelandic citizen and has sworn off from traveling to the US because of the NDAA and other Wikileaks related prosecution. Whereas the Smith-Amash amendment would apply to Jonsdottir only if she were in the US; it doesn’t offer any protection to non-citizens outside of the US.

Which means, with her ruling, Forrest has made the Smith-Amash amendment the sensible middle ground (really, it ought to be considered the bare minimum, but even still, before last night it didn’t stand a chance in hell of passing the Senate). That is, it does what most Americans seem to want done to the NDAA, to limit it so it doesn’t apply to them.

In her ruling, Forrest made it clear she tried to offer the government an easy way to help her avoid enjoining this section.

The Court’s attempt to avoid having to deal with the Constitutional aspects of the challenge was by providing the Government with prompt notice in the form of declarations and depositions of the precise conduct in which plaintiffs are involved and which they claim places them in fear of military detention. To put it bluntly, eliminating these plaintiffs’ standing simply by representing that their conduct does not fall within the scope of § 1021 would have been simple. The Government chose not to do so–thereby ensuring standing and requiring this Court to reach the merits of the instant motion.

She also made it clear she’d welcome Congress fixing the problem. Let’s see if they do so today.

Judge Enjoins NDAA Section 1021 because Government Implies Speech May Equal Terrorism

The Court then asked: Give me an example. Tell me what it means to substantially support associated forces.

Government: I’m not in a position to give specific examples.

Court: Give me one.

Government: I’m not in a position to give one specific example.

When Judge Katherine Forrest asked the government, repeatedly, for both generalized clarification and descriptions specific to plaintiffs like Chris Hedges and Brigitta Jonsdottir explaining the scope of Section 1021 of the NDAA, the government refused to give it. Not only was the government unwilling to reassure that even a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist like Hedges would not be indefinitely detained as “a person who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces” if he reported on any number of terrorist groups, but it also refused to explain the meaning of the section generally.

Which is the core reason why Forrest not only ruled that the plaintiffs have standing and the case should go forward, but also enjoined any enforcement of Section 1021. In explaining this, she noted that she was forced by the government’s refusal to give clarification to assume that the government believes First Amendment speech is included in the orbit of “substantially supported” that might be indefinitely held under 1021.

It must be said that it would have been a rather simple matter for the Government to have stated that as to these plaintiffs and the conduct as to which they would testify, that § 1021 did not and would not apply, if indeed it did or would not. That could have eliminated the standing of these plaintiffs and their claims of irreparable harm. Failure to be able to make such a representation given the prior notice of the activities at issue requires this Court to assume that, in fact, the Government takes the position that a wide swath of expressive and associational conduct is in fact encompassed by § 1021.

[snip]

This Court is left then, with the following conundrum: plaintiffs have put forward evidence that § 1021 has in fact chilled their expressive and associational activities; the Government will not represent that such activities are not covered by § 1021; plaintiffs’ activities are constitutionally protected. Given that record and the protections afforded by the First Amendment, this Court finds that plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of a facial challenge to § 1021.

I spent much of the day explaining to people why Obama’s Yemen EO is so troubling. I’ve had to describe all the things that have transpired that have criminalized speech since Obama issued a similar EO in 2010–the decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the conviction of Tarek Mehanna, and the charging of Bradley Manning with aiding the enemy.

Now I can point to Forrest’s opinion to show that the proposition that journalists might be prosecuted for material support of terrorism for their First Amendment speech–to the extent it’s an extreme proposition–it is the government’s extreme proposition.

Forrest used the government’s stubbornness against it in one other way, too–to get past the rather high bar on whether to issue a preliminary injunction or not. The decision on whether to issue an injunction or not depends on a lot of things. But ultimately, it requires a balancing test between the hardships imposed on the plaintiff and the defense. And since–Forrest explained–the government repeatedly insisted that Section 1021 does no more or less than what the AUMF already does, then enjoining the enforcement of 1021 would not harm the government at all.

In considering whether to issue a preliminary injunction, the Court must consider, as noted above, “the balance of the hardships between the plaintiff and defendant and issue the injunction only if the balance of the hardships tips in the plaintiff’s favor.” Salinger, 607 F.3d at 80.

The Government’s primary argument in opposition to this motion is that § 1021 is simply an affirmation of the AUMF; that it goes no further, it does nothing more. As is clear from this Opinion, this Court disagrees that that is the effect of § 1021 as currently drafted. However, if the Government’s argument is to be credited in terms of its belief as to the impact of the legislation–which is nil–then the issuance of an injunction should have absolutely no impact on any Governmental activities at all. The AUMF does not have a “sunset” provision: it is still in force and effect. Thus, to the extent the Government believes that the two provisions are co-extensive, enjoining any action under § 1021 should not have any impact on the Government.

While most of Forrest’s ruling involved hoisting the government on its own obstinate petard, she also left a goodie in her ruling for the higher courts that will surely review her decision after the government surely appeals (unless Congress passes a fix to the NDAA tomorrow, as they might). Forrest established the importance of speech by pointing to … Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Citizens United.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010), Justice Kennedy wrote that “[s]peech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means that hold officials accountable to the people . . . . The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a pre-condition to enlightened self-government.” Id. at 899. Laws that burden political speech are therefore subject to strict scrutiny. Id. at 898. “The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.” Id. at 899.

If corporations can avail themselves of unlimited campaign speech, then mere journalists and activists ought to be able to engage in political speech without being indefinitely detained.

And yet, it took a judge to make that argument to the government.