WASHINGTON — In June of 2010, four boys were playing in the dry bed of the Rio Grande that separates El Paso from Juárez, Mexico. The international borderline, unmarked, runs through the middle of the culvert.
The boys dared one another to run up a concrete incline and touch the barbed wire of the American border fence. An American border guard, Jesus Mesa Jr., grabbed one of them.
Another boy, Sergio Hernández Guereca, fled, and he made it back to Mexico before Mr. Mesa shot him in the head from about 60 feet away, killing him. Sergio was 15.
Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether Sergio’s parents may sue Mr. Mesa for violating the Constitution by using excessive force. If not, lawyers for the parents argue, then Sergio died in “a unique no-man’s land — a law-free zone in which U.S. agents can kill innocent civilians with impunity.”
Had Sergio been killed in the United States, he would have been protected by the Constitution. Had he been an American citizen, he would have been protected whether he was killed in the United States or in Mexico.
– An Agent Shot a Boy Across the U.S. Border. Can His Parents Sue?, Adam Liptak, New York Times, yesterday
Dan emailed me the link to the article yesterday, with a subject line, “This might be of interest. To which I responded:
This is very much of interest, Dan. It’s not simply the narrow legal question about whether the family of this teen can sue for a violation of a U.S. constitutional right. It’s also what I consider an absolutely critical issue: the Conservative Legal Movement’s aggressive privileging of the rights of “sovereigns” over the rights of individuals–usually they mean U.S. states–as though the “sovereign” is a person. They call it the “dignity” of the states, and I guess in this case they’re calling it the “dignity” of Mexico.
Of course, the difference here is that, unlike in the states’-rights-to-violate-individuals’-rights–which almost always means state-courts‘-rights-to-violate-individuals’-rights (this dignity concern does not extent to the other two branches of state government)–the government whose dignity the Conservative Legal Movement judges are so concerned with is–what?–waiving its right to have the Conservative Legal Movement protect it from this affront to its dignity.
And, btw, the Fifth Circuit is the only circuit among the 12 federal appellate circuits that remains so thoroughly within the chokehold of the Conservative Legal Movement. But if Trump wins, they’ll all quickly begin reverting back to it.
I’ll write something on this, but it’s a complex subject and I might not be able to finish it today. But if not, then tomorrow. I want it posted before Wednesday night’s debate.
What I was referring to when I said it is very much of interest (to the general public) is not fully apparent in the above excerpt; after all, most Americans will never be in a situation in which they are physically in a legal no-man’s-land. But the operative word there is “physically,” by which I mean, in a physical rather than a metaphorical place whose very legal status, its reach by this country’s basic precepts of law, are deemed by this country’s federal courts to be nonexistent.
In legal jargon, what I’m talking about is the issue of “subject-matter jurisdiction”—the threshold authority—of federal courts to hear, to address, to consider, to not dismiss for lack of threshold legal authority to hear it, the lawsuit (whether civil in nature or quasi-criminal in nature, which is what most habeas corpus cases really are) whose purpose is to make a claim of one sort or another under the laws of this country.
But due entirely to a set of Supreme Court-concocted legal “doctrines” in civil cases and the lower federal courts’ all-encompassing interpretations of it, and a rewriting by the Supreme Court’s Conservative Legal Movement crowd of an already-awful 1996 jurisdictional statute to effectively repeal the Constitution’s habeas corpus provision’s applicability (via the Fourteenth Amendment) to state-court criminal convictions and sentences, anything that occurred in state court or is related in some way to what occurred in state court that arguably or inarguably violates a constitutional right of the individual who challenges it federal court is ruled beyond the jurisdictional reach of the federal courts.
And while the habeas corpus jurisdictional statutory interpretation at least purports to be, well, statutory interpretation, no such claim was ever made about one of the two doctrines barring access to federal court in non-habeas cases concerning something that occurred in or relating to state court. It was always unabashedly simply a policy preference by the Court. And as such, it violates the Constitution’s Article III, which accords Congress the sole authority to determine federal-court jurisdiction (subject to the Supreme Court’s determination that jurisdictional statute, or the absence of one, itself violates the Constitution).
The other of the two Court-fabricated jurisdictional doctrines is unique in its weirdness and, for the last 28 years, in its audacity. The 5-4 opinion that created it in 1983 was a standard statutory-interpretation opinion, but the statute it interpreted was repealed five years later at the behest of William Rehnquist, then newly elevated as chief justice. But instead of just dying with the repeal of the statute, it remained, but, like the other one, just a Court-created “doctrine”.
This itself has operated to permit the lower federal courts to treat the continued viability of the doctrine, post-1988-statutory-repeal, as it treats the other doctrine: as unchallengeable via litigation, by dint of its provenance as a Court-created jurisdictional pseudo-statute. Or something. And therefore beyond the reach of a court challenge to its continued viability, and its very constitutionality. It’s not a statute, see. And it’s not an Executive Branch regulation or policy, see. It, like the state-court events that these doctrines, together, serve to bar from constitutional challenge in federal court, exist in a legal no-man’s land. The actions, the operations, the consequences—they sure may be unconstitutional, but they’re also un-remedial.
Like the Mexican teen’s family’s case, according to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And according to the Obama administration. Liptak explains:
The Obama administration, in a brief urging the justices to deny review, said allowing civil suits in American courts was not the right way to address cross-border shootings by American agents. The Mexican courts have jurisdiction over events that happen in Mexico, the brief said.
True enough, and the Mexican authorities did charge Mr. Mesa with murder. But the United States has refused to extradite him.
The government of Mexico filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the parents’ case. “Applying U.S. constitutional law in such a case does not disrespect Mexico’s sovereignty,” the brief said. “Any invasion of Mexico’s sovereignty occurred when Agent Mesa shot his gun across the border at Sergio Hernández — not when the boy’s parents sought to hold Agent Mesa responsible for his actions.”
A trial judge dismissed the case, but a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, let part of it move forward.
“If ever a case could be said to present an official abuse of power so arbitrary as to shock the conscience,” Judge Edward C. Prado wrote, what Sergio’s parents described was that case.
The full Fifth Circuit reheard the case. While it agreed that “the death of a teenaged Mexican national from a gunshot fired by a Border Patrol agent standing on U.S. soil” was a “tragic incident,” it said Sergio’s parents could not pursue a claim under the Constitution.
A 1990 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, supports that view. It said some constitutional rights applied only within the nation’s borders unless the plaintiff had a “significant voluntary connection” to the United States.
But a more recent decision, Boumediene v. Bush in 2008, concerning people detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, took a more flexible approach. It allowed detainees there to invoke the Constitution. The Fifth Circuit relied on the narrower view. By contrast, the Ninth Circuit, with jurisdiction over the border states of Arizona and California, has said that “the border of the United States is not a clear line that separates aliens who may bring constitutional challenges from those who may not.”
Under that broader standard, a trial judge in Arizona last year refused to dismiss a civil case against Lonnie Swartz, a Border Patrol agent who is accused of killing José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, 16, in another cross-border shooting. Federal prosecutors have charged Mr. Swartz with murder, and he has pleaded not guilty.
Mexico’s Supreme Court brief described several other cross-border shootings. More generally, it said, “shootings at the border — whether or not justified in any particular case — are, unfortunately, far from a rare occurrence.”
A 2013 report commissioned by United States Customs and Border Protection studied 67 shootings from 2010 to 2012. “Too many cases,” the report said, “do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force.”
It’s all about preserving the dignity of the sovereign (or the “sovereign,” depending upon your viewpoint). “Dignity”and “sovereign” being the Supreme Court’s terms, repeated time and again in cases justifying the incessant rulings by that court privileging the rights of state courts, but not the rights of state legislatures, and not the rights of state executive branches, at the cost of the constitutional rights of individuals that state courts, or someone or some entity related to something that happened in or in connection to one, has trampled.
At the Supreme Court in recent decades, states’ rights usually means state courts’ rights to violate individuals’ constitutional rights. In the name of preserving the anthropomorphic right of the state to dignity. Or, to be precise, their sovereign dignity. Sovereign here apparently meaning the monarch, since monarchs, after all, are human.
But now the Mexican government, unlike the state governments whose dignity the Supreme Court’s Conservative Legal Movement knights in shining robes defend so gallantly, begs to differ on the meaning of sovereign dignity and on the underlying purpose of it. That government, although it surely appreciates the thoughtfulness of the sentiment, apparently considers its citizens the ones entitled to dignity under civil rights and civil liberties and human rights law. And in fact it may not even consider itself human.