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Context of 'June 2003: Supreme Court Unlikely to Reopen ‘Reynolds’ Case, Experts Believe'

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Chief Justice Fred Vinson.Chief Justice Fred Vinson. [Source: Kansas State Historical Society]The US Supreme Court upholds the power of the federal government’s executive branch to withhold documents from a civil suit on the basis of executive privilege and national security (see October 25, 1952). The case, US v Reynolds, overturns an appellate court decision that found against the government (see December 11, 1951). Originally split 5-4 on the decision, the Court goes to 6-3 when Justice William O. Douglas joins the majority. The three dissenters, Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson, refuse to write a dissenting opinion, instead adopting the decision of the appellate court as their dissent.
'State Secrets' a Valid Reason for Keeping Documents out of Judicial, Public Eye - Chief Justice Fred Vinson writes the majority opinion. Vinson refuses to grant the executive branch the near-unlimited power to withhold documents from judicial review, as the government’s arguments before the court implied (see October 21, 1952), but instead finds what he calls a “narrower ground for defense” in the Tort Claims Act, which compels the production of documents before a court only if they are designated “not privileged.” The government’s claim of privilege in the Reynolds case was valid, Vinson writes. But the ruling goes farther; Vinson upholds the claim of “state secrets” as a reason for withholding documents from judicial review or public scrutiny. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write: “In truth, only now was the Supreme Court formally recognizing the privilege, giving the government the precedent it sought, a precedent binding on all courts throughout the nation. Most important, the Court was also—for the first time—spelling out how the privilege should be applied.” Siegel will call the Reynolds ruling “an effort to weigh competing legitimate interests,” but the ruling does not allow judges to see the documents in order to make a decision about their applicability in a court case: “By instructing judges not to insist upon examining documents if the government can satisfy that ‘a reasonable danger’ to national security exists, Vinson was asking jurists to fly blind.” Siegel will mark the decision as “an act of faith. We must believe the government,” he will write, “when it claims [the accident] would reveal state secrets. We must trust that the government is telling the truth.”
Time of Heightened Tensions Drives Need for Secrecy - Vinson goes on to note, “[W]e cannot escape judicial notice that this is a time of vigorous preparation for the national defense.” Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fighting a war in Korea, the US is, Vinson writes, in a time of crisis, and one where military secrets must be kept and even encouraged. [U. S. v. Reynolds, 3/9/1953; Siegel, 2008, pp. 171-176]
Future Ramifications - Reflecting on the decision in 2008, Siegel will write that while the case will not become as well known as many other Court decisions, it will wield significant influence. The ruling “formally recognized and established the framework for the government’s ‘state secrets’ privilege—a privilege that for decades had enabled federal agencies to conceal conduct, withhold documents, and block civil litigation, all in the name of national secrecy.… By encouraging judicial deference when the government claimed national security secrets, Reynolds had empowered the Executive Branch in myriad ways. Among other things, it had provided a fundamental legal argument for much of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Enemy combatants such as Yaser Esam Hamdi (see December 2001) and Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002), for many months confined without access to lawyers, had felt the breath of Reynolds. So had the accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui when federal prosecutors defied a court order allowing him access to other accused terrorists (see March 22, 2005). So had the Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002), like dozens of others the subject of a CIA extraordinary rendition to a secret foreign prison (see After September 11, 2001). So had hundreds of detainees at the US Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, held without charges or judicial review (see September 27, 2001). So had millions of American citizens, when President Bush, without judicial knowledge or approval, authorized domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (see Early 2002). US v. Reynolds made all this possible. The bedrock of national security law, it had provided a way for the Executive Branch to formalize an unprecedented power and immunity, to pull a veil of secrecy over its actions.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. ix-x]

Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Supreme Court, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Robert Jackson, Jose Padilla, Felix Frankfurter, Bush administration (43), Fred Vinson, Barry Siegel, George W. Bush, Hugo Black, Maher Arar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal court rules that because of the government’s “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953), a civilian plaintiff suing the US Navy over a contractual agreement cannot even access “non-privileged,” or unclassified, information from the Navy because to do so might “threaten disclosure” of material that goes against “the overriding interest of the United States… preservation of its state secrets privilege precludes any further attempt to pursue litigation.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 196-197]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Navy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In the second of two rulings in the case of Halkin v Helms, the judiciary comes down squarely on the side of the US government against charges of illegal surveillance and wiretapping leveled against American anti-war protesters. The district and appellate courts uphold the federal government’s “state secrets” claim as codified in US v Reynolds (see March 9, 1953), thereby denying the plaintiffs the right to see government information that they claim would prove their case. The DC Court of Appeals writes that the federal courts do not have any constitutional role as “continuing monitors of the wisdom and soundness of Executive action,” and instead the courts “should accord utmost deference to executive assertions of privilege on grounds of military or diplomatic secrets… courts need only be satisfied that there is a reasonable danger” that military secrets might be exposed. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 196-196]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The DC Court of Appeals rejects a claim by civilian plaintiffs to force the government to disclose classified information as part of a lawsuit, citing the “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953). Furthermore, the court broadens the definition of “state secrets” to include “disclosure of intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities and disruption of diplomatic relations.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 197]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A lawsuit against the FBI’s investigation of a sixth-grade boy and his school project to create an “encyclopedia of the world” is stopped when an appeals court rules that the agency is shielded by the “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953). Unable to secure information from the FBI as to why it investigated him, the child had therefore “failed to sustain his burden of proof [and] the cause of action was properly dismissed.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 197]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A US appellate court refuses to find a number of military contractors liable in the death of Earl Patton Ryals, who died with 36 of his fellow crewmen in the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark (see May 17, 1987 and After). Ryals’s estate claims that he and his fellows died in part because of negligence on the part of the contractors who designed, manufactured, tested, and marketed the weapons system on board the Stark, including the Phalanx anti-missile system. In turning down the estate’s claim, the court cites the government’s “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953), saying that the facts of the issue could not be resolved without examining classified Navy documents. And even without this reason, the court rules, Ryals’s estate cannot see the documents because the case presents “a political question” about military decision-making that is not subject to judicial review. [Zuckerbraun v. General Dynamics Corp., 6/13/1991; Siegel, 2008, pp. 197-198] A year later, a similar case will be dismissed on the grounds that a trial might conceivably reveal “state secrets” (see September 16, 1992).

Entity Tags: Earl Patton Ryals, US Department of the Navy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal appeals court upholds the dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of 23 Navy sailors killed in the attack on the USS Stark (see May 17, 1987 and After) against a number of defense contractors. A similar lawsuit on behalf of one of the sailors killed in the attack was dismissed a year before (see June 13, 1991). This time the plaintiffs file over 2,500 pages of unclassified documentary evidence supporting their claims that the contractors were negligent in their design and implementation of the weapons systems aboard the Stark. The appeals court finds that regardless of the amount of evidence entered, to allow the trial would be to potentially infringe on the US government’s “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953). “[N]o amount of effort could safeguard the privileged information,” the court rules. The court adds that “classified and unclassified information cannot always be separated, and therefore courts must restrict access not only to classified material, but to “those pieces of evidence” that “press so closely upon highly sensitive material that they create a hgh risk of inadvertent or indirect disclosures.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 198]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Navy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lawyers Wilson Brown and Jeff Almeida file a request with the Supreme Court, asking it to reconsider its landmark 1953 case, US v Reynolds (see March 9, 1953). The lawyers are representing several family members who lost fathers (and, in one case, a husband) in the airplane crash that led to the original case (see October 6, 1948). The lawyers note that the government’s original claim that the accident reports could not be released due to the inclusion of “military secrets” (see July 26, 1950) is false, as the accident reports have been declassified and examined for such secrets (see February 2000). “Indeed,” the lawyers write, “they are no more than accounts of a flight that, due to the Air Force’s negligence, went tragically awry. In telling the Court otherwise, the Air Force lied. In reliance upon that lie, the Court deprived the widows [the three original plaintiffs] of their judgments. It is for this Court, through issuance of a writ of error coram nobis and in exercise of its inherent power to remedy fraud, to put things right… United States v. Reynolds stands as a classic ‘fraud on the court,’ one that is most remarkable because it succeeded in tainting a decision of our nation’s highest tribunal.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 249-251] On July 26, 2002, one of the plaintiffs, Judy Palya Loether, wrote in an e-mail to Brown: ”US v Reynolds has come to be a landmark case that is used by the government when it claims that documents cannot be turned over to the courts because of national security. Yet this very case is now proven, in my mind, to be based on a lie that did injury to 3 widows and 5 little children (see February 2000)… It allowed the government an area of no checks and balances (see December 11, 1951). How many times has the government used this decision, not to protect national security, but for its own purposes?” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 237-238]

Entity Tags: Judy Palya Loether, Jeff Almeida, US Supreme Court, US Department of the Air Force, Wilson Brown

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Solicitor General Theodore Olson submits a response to the request that the Supreme Court reopen the 1953 state secrets case US v Reynolds (see February 26, 2003). Olson argues that once a decision has been made, it should be respected—“the law favors finality,” he writes. More surprisingly to the plaintiffs and their lawyers, Olson argues that there was no fraud perpetuated in the original case, a position hard to defend in the face of the declassified accident reports that were the heart of that case (see February 2000 and February 26, 2003). The accident reports never contained military secrets or secret information of any kind, a claim that the Court’s 1953 decision hinged on, but Olson argues that because of the wording of the claims—releasing the reports to the original plaintiffs “might lead to disclosure” of classified information—then the old claims of protecting state secrets are still technically valid (see March 9, 1953). Olson echoes the author of the original Supreme Court opinion, Fred Vinson, by reminding the Court that “[t]he claim of privilege in this case was made in 1950, at a time in the nation’s history—during the twilight of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War—when the country, and especially the military, was uniquely sensitive to need for ‘vigorous preparation for national defense.‘… The allegations of fraud made by the petition in this case… must be viewed in that light.” The lawyer for the plaintiffs in the petition, Wilson Brown, is both angered and impressed by what he calls Olson’s “remarkable obfuscation.” By hiding behind the vague wording of the original claims of state secrets, Olson is implying that this case must turn on factual issues—and therefore should be heard in a lower court, not the Supreme Court. Brown, in his response co-written by colleague Jeff Almeida, calls Olson’s arguments “disingenuous” and insists that the plaintiffs’ original case “had been vitiated through fraud.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 261-264]

Entity Tags: Fred Vinson, Bush administration (43), Jeff Almeida, US Supreme Court, Wilson Brown, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Constitutional lawyers and experts believe that the Supreme Court will not accept the petition to reopen the landmark US v Reynolds case (see February 26, 2003 and May 30, 2003). Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies says that the petition is essentially frivolous, and says of the claim that Reynolds was decided on the basis of a fraudulent government presentation: “That the facts of the original case are not true is irrelevant to the state secrets privilege (see March 9, 1953). The idea that it undercuts the privilege is ridiculous. Often in cases, after they’re decided, the facts are proven not to be true. That’s the nature of the legal system. Sometimes people lie. Sometimes there’s new information.” Law professor Jonathan Turley is more sympathetic to the petition, but agrees that the Supreme Court will probably not hear it: “For the Supreme Court to address the fact clearly that it had been lied to would open difficult issues.… The Court used the facts of Reynolds to say the government could be trusted.… Reynolds was based on trust, on willful blinders. There’s much danger in going back now, in recognizing that the government routinely lies. They’re not going to face that. They won’t reopen this. I think Reynolds is like discovering an unfaithful wife after fifty years of marriage. You’re hurt by the betrayal, but you can’t turn back half a century. You preserve the marriage for the children’s sake” (see December 1980, September 1982, November 1984, January 1990, June 13, 1991, and September 16, 1992). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 266-267]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Jonathan Turley, Center for National Security Studies, Kate Martin

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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