Yemen Non-Evacuation: Court Refuses to Second-Guess Discretionary Foreign Policy Decisions

Posted: 4:38 am ET
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The State Department’s Yemen Crisis page notes that due to deteriorating situation, it suspended embassy operations on February 11, 2015, and U.S. Embassy Sana’a American staff were relocated out of the country.  “All consular services, routine and emergency, continue to be suspended until further notice. The Department notified the public of this move, and its impact on consular services, and urged U.S. citizens in Yemen to depart while commercial transportation was available.”

The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa went on mandatory evacuation in May 2011 (see US Embassy Yemen Now on Ordered Departure), and again in August 2013 (see US Embassy Yemen Now on Ordered Departure) and November 2014 (see US Embassy Yemen on Ordered Departure Once Again). In July 2014, the State Department issued a Travel Warning, see New Travel Warning for Yemen — Don’t Come; If In Country, Leave! But Some Can’t Leave).

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The case below was filed on April 9, 2015 by a Nora Ali Mobarez, a United States citizen residing in Yemen.  She was joined by “25 other people, all of whom are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Yemeni connections” in filing a cases against the Secretaries of State and Defense and seeking a court order to “compel Defendants to comply with an alleged duty of the Executive Branch to provide a means of evacuation from Yemen for them or their relatives.”

Excerpt from the Memorandum of Opinion dated May 17, 2016 by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:

Plaintiff Nora Ali Mobarez, a United States citizen, is currently residing in the war-torn and conflict-ridden Republic of Yemen. (See Compl., ECF No. 2, ¶¶ 4, 55– 59.) Mobarez has joined with 25 other people, all of whom are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Yemeni connections, to file the instant official-capacity complaint against the Secretary of the Department of State (“State”) and the Secretary of the Department of Defense (“DOD” and, collectively, “Defendants”). These plaintiffs seek a court order to compel Defendants to comply with an alleged duty of the Executive Branch to provide a means of evacuation from Yemen for them or their relatives. (See id. ¶¶ 3–24, 29–77.) Specifically, their complaint asserts that the United States has closed its embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, has evacuated embassy staff, and has removed Marines from the country, but that the U.S. government has yet to execute any plan to secure the safe removal of private American citizens. (See id. ¶¶ 34–36, 77.) According to Plaintiffs, Defendants’ forbearance violates the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701–06, insofar as Defendants “have failed to provide through direct military assistance or contracting with commercial entities the necessary equipment, ships, airplanes, and other items that are available to Defendants to [e]nsure the security, safety, and well-being of United States citizens[,]” and have therefore “unlawfully withheld and/or unreasonably delayed agency action to which the Plaintiffs are entitled” and/or “have taken action that is arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law[.]” (Id. ¶ 81.)

Before this Court at present is Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss the instant complaint. (See Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.’ Mot.”), ECF No. 8.) Defendants contend that Plaintiffs are wrong about the existence of any duty to evacuate them. (See Defs.’ Reply in Supp. of Defs.’ Mot. (“Reply”), ECF No. 12, at 6–8.)1 Furthermore, as a threshold matter, Defendants insist that legal claims such as the ones Plaintiffs bring here require the judiciary to second-guess the discretionary foreign- policy decisions of the Executive Branch, and thus, are nonjusticiable under the political-question doctrine. (See Defs.’ Mem. in Supp. of Defs.’ Mot. (“Defs.’ Mem.”), ECF No. 8-1, at 12–14.)

On March 31, 2016, this Court issued an order GRANTING Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ complaint. (See Order, ECF No. 13.) The instant Memorandum Opinion explains the Court’s reasons for that order. In short, the Court agrees with Defendants’ justiciability argument, and has therefore concluded that it lacks jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiffs’ complaint.
[…]
Plaintiffs have asked this Court, in no uncertain terms, to issue an order that compels the Executive Branch to conduct an evacuation of American citizens in Yemen. Not surprisingly, Defendants insist that any such order would impermissibly encroach upon the discretion that the Constitution affords to the political branches to conduct foreign affairs; therefore, prior to considering Defendants’ contention that Plaintiffs’ complaint fails to state a claim under the APA, this Court must first determine whether or not it has the authority to traverse the thicket of thorny foreign-policy issues that encompasses Plaintiffs’ allegations. Precedent in this area makes it crystal clear that federal courts cannot answer “political questions” that are presented to them in the guise of legal issues, see infra Part III.A., but identifying which claims qualify as nonjusticiable political questions—and which do not—can sometimes be a substantially less lucid endeavor. Not so here: as explained below, after considering the parties’ arguments and the applicable law regarding the boundaries of the political-question doctrine, this Court is confident that Plaintiffs’ claims fit well within the scope of the nonjusticiability principles that the Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit have long articulated. Accordingly, in its Order of March 31, 2016, the Court granted Defendants’ motion and dismissed Plaintiffs’ case.
[…]
It cannot be seriously disputed that “decision-making in the fields of foreign policy and national security is textually committed to the political branches of government.” Schneider, 412 F.3d at 194; see also id. at 194–95 (collecting the various explicit “[d]irect allocation[s]” in the Constitution of those responsibilities to the legislative and executive branches). And, indeed, Plaintiffs seek to have this Court question the Executive Branch’s discretionary decision to refrain from using military force to implement an evacuation under the circumstances described in the complaint, despite the fact that, per the Constitution, it is the President who, as head of the Executive Branch and “Commander in Chief[,]” U.S. Const. Art. II, § 2, decides whether and when to deploy military forces, not this Court. See El-Shifa, 607 F.3d at 842 (explaining that a claim “requiring [the court] to decide whether taking military action was wise” is a nonjusticiable “policy choice[] and value determination[]” (second and third alterations in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

Plaintiffs’ suggestion that the court-ordered remedy they seek could very well stop short of a direct mandate for military intervention (see Pls.’ Opp’n at 15 (asserting that “[t]his Court can order Defendants to [effectuate the evacuation] by simply directing the evacuation to happen and leaving it to Defendants to determine the means”)) makes no difference, as far as the political-question doctrine is concerned. Regardless, the clear basis for the complaint’s assertion that Plaintiffs are entitled to any relief at all is the contention that the Executive Branch has abused its discretion— in APA terms—in refusing to evacuate U.S. citizens from Yemen thus far (see, e.g., Compl. ¶ 81), and the Court’s evaluation of that contention would necessarily involve second-guessing the “wisdom” of these agencies’ discretionary determinations.
[…]
[T]he “strategic choices directing the nation’s foreign affairs are constitutionally committed to the political branches[,]” and once it becomes clear that a plaintiff wishes the courts to “reconsider the wisdom of discretionary foreign policy decisions[,]” the judicial inquiry must end.

Read the Memorandum of Opinion here (PDF) or read below:

 

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