Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Court Rules That No Fly List Can Be Challenged

The Ninth Circuit ruled that a person can challenge the inclusion of their name on the government's no fly list. Sounds pretty obvious that you should have that right, but that isn't the Bush Administration's position.

The case is Ibrahim v Department of Homeland Security and it was decided by a two to one decision of the Ninth Circuit Court if Appeals.

Ms. Ibrahim was a Stanford student on a student visa from Malaysia, who also happens to be a Muslim. When she tried to fly home from San Francisco, she was blocked from boarding the flight, detained and handcuffed in front of her fourteen year old daughter, and taken to a police station. Two hours later she was released and she was permitted to fly home the following day after being subjected to "enhanced searches."

The suit was filed against numerous agencies and individuals alleging a range of violations, from Constitutional due process to violations of the Administrative Procedures Act. Basically all of her claims were denied in the District Court, which is the first level trial court in the Federal system. The Court of Appeals reversed two critical aspects of the trial court's decision. First, it held that the trial court did have jurisdiction to here the issue of whether her name was wrongly placed on the list. Secondly the court held she could pursue a claim against a TSA employee, John Bondanella, in his personal capacity, for his actions in connection with her detention.

This is a complex case involving questions of jurisdiction and statutory construction. (The Constitutional issues were not addressed.) The government was arguing that any challenges of this sort could only be filed in an appeals court. But the Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that the statutory provision in question, 49 USC 46110, did not apply in this case because the no fly list is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is part of the FBI and therefore not covered by that statutory provision. Beyond the technical question, which is a close call, the Court looked at the practicalities of the case.

Our interpretation of section 46110 is consistent not merely with the statutory language but with common sense as well. Just how would an appellate court review the agency’s decision to put a particular name on the list? There was no hearing
before an administrative law judge; there was no notice-and- comment procedure. For all we know, there is no administrative record of any sort for us to review. See Florence, supra, at 2155-59 (the process of maintaining the No-Fly List is opaque). So if any court is going to review the government’s decision to put Ibrahim’s name on the No-Fly List, it makes sense that it be a court with the ability to take evidence.

It remains to be seen what impact this decision will have and whether it will be appealed. But is once again puts at issue the entire question of whether there should even be these kinds of lists and if they are to be maintained how can it be done in a way reasonably consistent with civil liberties.

I believe a no fly list makes no sense. If someone is a real threat based on real evidence they should be investigated and prosecuted. If there is no evidence of wrongdoing they should be free to conduct their affairs like any other citizen. If the authorities have reason to believe someone is going to bomb a plane, they can be detained and prosecuted. But having a list of hundreds of thousands of names of people who might have talked to someone who talked to someone who read a book about terrorism is idiotic. It not only abuses the rights of innocent people but also diverts recourses from meaningful activity. It is all done in the interest of creating an illusion of security, nothing more.