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Supreme Court Turns Back Detainee Lawsuit Against Mueller, Ashcroft

May 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In a 5-4 ruling, Supreme Court said Monday that FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft can't face a lawsuit launched by a former terrorism detainee. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal recaps the ruling and other court moves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today’s busy day at the court included decisions in two significant cases. Here, as always, to help us, Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Welcome back.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the first case involved a detainee, Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim living in the U.S. who wanted to sue top officials for treatment he received. Tell us more. What was the argument?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Mr. Iqbal was picked up in 2001 on charges unrelated to terrorism, but shortly afterwards he was transferred to a maximum-security facility that held those who were suspected of being involved in the 9/11 attacks.

He ultimately was convicted of the non-terrorism charges, served his time, and was deported to Pakistan. But he did sue then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller claiming that they had adopted and enforced an unconstitutional policy that resulted in his confinement and, later, subsequent physical abuse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tied to the — I mean, based on his religion, right?

MARCIA COYLE: Right, simply because of either his race, religion, or national origin.

But the case before the court that was decided today was not about whether those two officials did violate his constitutional rights. It was whether Mr. Iqbal had pleaded in his complaint enough facts to get over the first major hurdle in a lawsuit that lets you get to your day in court, and that was whether he could survive a motion by the government to dismiss the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So the issue was whether he could bring this suit against these…


JEFFREY BROWN: A lower court sided with him.


5-4 ruling against Iqbal

JEFFREY BROWN: But today the Supreme Court said no.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy -- it was a 5-4 ruling -- he said that Mr. Iqbal had not pled sufficient facts. The rule here is, did you give me enough information that it's plausible for a court to infer that those two officials did commit the misconduct?

Justice Kennedy said, looking at the detention of Mr. Iqbal, that it's not surprising that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement officials to detain those suspected of those terrorist attacks would have a disparate impact on Arabs or Muslims given the identities of the 9/11 attackers.

And he also said that he saw no discriminatory intent on the part of the two officials based on the information that Mr. Iqbal had provided.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, this was one of those tight 5-4 decisions, as we've seen often with this court.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it was.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you said, Justice Kennedy in a majority, where he often is the deciding vote, right?

MARCIA COYLE: Often, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a strong dissent, however.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, Justice Souter wrote the dissent, and he was joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer. And he faulted the court for focusing on just two allegations in Mr. Iqbal's complaint. He said there were many allegations, and they were detailed, specific as to the policy and the involvement of Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller. And he also accused the court of going too far in insulating top government officials from suits like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as you said, Mr. Iqbal himself was deported, but what happens to his case now? He can still go back against others?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, he has other claims pending against the prison officials and other government officials involved in his confinement. The court today also sent his case back to the lower court to see if he could come up with, amend his complaint with more facts that would allow him to go forward.

There are also, Jeff, a number of cases like this pending in the lower courts involving those who were detained after 9/11. And the court here has imposed very a rigorous standard that they would have to overcome if they want to sue high-ranking government officials.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let's move to case number two, completely different subject.

MARCIA COYLE: Very different.

JEFFREY BROWN: So switch your head here.

MARCIA COYLE: All right.

JEFFREY BROWN: 1979 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and this case involves questions of pregnancy leave and later on pension rights?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely.


MARCIA COYLE: Noreen Hulteen and I believe four other women were involved in this case, although there are at least a thousand women who could be affected by it.

They worked for AT&T between 1969 and 1976, when AT&T treated pregnancy leave as personal leave, not in the same manner as other leaves because of disabilities. And what that meant in terms of their future pension was, as personal leave, they didn't get as much credit in the seniority system, so their pensions would be lower than anyone who took it for another reason.

They sued AT&T when their pensions came due, after Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, saying that, even though the Supreme Court back in 1976 had ruled pregnancy discrimination was not illegal gender discrimination, AT&T's continued use of that old rule in calculating their pensions was really a current violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, here Justice Souter, once again -- but this time he wrote for the majority -- 7-2 against the women.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, that's absolutely correct. Justice Souter said that giving current effect to rules that were operative before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not always violate the statute.

He noted that the nation's major job bias law, Title VII, gives special treatment to pensions because of Congress's concern about the fiscal stability of them. And Title VII says that a bona fide pension plan that has -- pays differential benefits, that that is permitted as long as it's not the result of intentional discrimination.

The key here was, when AT&T adopted its pregnancy leave rule before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, that was not gender-based discrimination, so what AT&T did was not illegal discrimination.

Strong dissent from Ginsburg

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the strong dissent in this case was particularly interesting, given current circumstances. It was written by Justice Ginsburg, the court's sole woman.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, that's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, here we have this dynamic of Justice Souter about to leave, questions about who might replace him.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Justice Ginsburg said that that 1976 Supreme Court decision that, when the Supreme Court said pregnancy discrimination was not illegal gender discrimination, was basically buried by Congress in 1978 when it enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. And she said the court should not have allowed it to continue to hold sway. She would have overruled it outright.

And she also said that AT&T failed here to fully heed what was the core command of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and that was to cease and desist from and after its effective date from discriminating on the basis of pregnancy in all employment-related contexts.

She felt that, yes, you could read the text and the history of this statute to say, you cannot continue to reduce women's benefits because of when they took their leave. Interesting, because Justice Ginsburg -- this was another in a series of recent decisions in which she feels in her dissent compelled to remind the court about the history and the continuing discrimination against women in the workplace.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and something that will no doubt play into whatever comes next with President Obama.

MARCIA COYLE: She has repeatedly asked for another woman on the court.

JEFFREY BROWN: Exactly. OK, Marcia Coyle, thanks, as always.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Jeff.