Weekend Circuit: Alcoholism, Abortion On Deck In The 9th Circuit

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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This is Weekend Circuit, a weekly review of the serious and the silly in the federal appeals courts in the last week.

4th Circuit OKs Suit Against Abu Ghraib Guards

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit brought by four inmates of Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison against civilian military contractors, alleging they were tortured.

The case, first filed in 2008, was ruled non-justiciable by a lower court. Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia found that the suit asked the court to resolve a non-judicial political question. The political questions doctrine holds that the courts should not resolve questions specifically delegated to other branches of government.

It reasoned a trial would force the courts to question “sensitive military judgements,” which lack “judicially manageable standards.” The district court also noted “a cloud of ambiguity” surrounds the legal definition of torture.

“We recognize that the legal issues presented in this case are indisputably complex, but we nevertheless cannot abdicate our judicial role in such cases,” wrote Judge Barbara Milano Keenan for a unanimous panel. “Nor will we risk weakening prohibitions under United States and international law against torture and war crimes by questioning the justiciability of a case merely because the case involves the need to define such terms.”

Judges Henry Franklin Floyd and Stephanie Dawn Thacker joined Keenan’s opinion. All are President Barack Obama-appointees.

The plaintiffs, former prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, are seeking damages resulting from alleged instances of torture. Approximately a dozen U.S. military personnel were dishonorably discharged in connection with the egregious abuse of prisoners.

9th Circuit: Pro-Life Groups Must Promote Abortion

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a law requiring pro-life pregnancy centers to promote abortion.

A three-judge panel upheld a state law that requires crisis pregnancy centers, some of which are religiously-affiliated and exist expressly to steer women away from abortion, to provide their patients information about abortion services available elsewhere. The bill was supported by California Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro Choice America. The law requires prominent placement of a notice informing patients of the availability of abortion services, and also requires employees to distribute these notices to patients.

A number of pro-life pregnancy centers challenged the law, claiming it forces them to promote state-sponsored messages and infringes on their religious beliefs.

“California has a substantial interest in the health of its citizens, including ensuring that its citizens have access to and adequate information about constitutionally protected medical services like abortion,” Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote. Nelson is an 88-year-old Carter appointee. The pro-life groups may appeal the ruling.

Oral Arguments: Can Alcoholic Illegals Be Deported?

The en banc 9th Circuit heard oral arguments in a case that asks the 11-judge panel to decide whether an illegal immigrant may be deported for being a “habitual drunkard.”

Section 8 of the U.S. Code equates alcoholism with “bad moral character.” If an illegal immigrant has received a deportation order but has been designated as a person of “bad moral character,” it is practically impossible to appeal the order.

Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, a Mexican national challenging the law, has lived in the United States since 1997. Court documents show that, on average, he drank a liter of tequila per day. He has one conviction for driving under the influence and has been diagnosed with acute alcoholic hepatitis and decompensated cirrhosis of the liver.

A three-judge panel ruled the law was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause, since the law targets for disparate treatment of a class of individuals with a medical disease.

“A statute targeting people who habitually and excessively drink alcohol is, in effect, targeting individuals with chronic alcoholism,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court. Reinhardt is a Carter-appointee.

“The theory that alcoholics are blameworthy because they could simply try harder to recover is an old trope not supported by the medical literature,” he wrote. “Rather, the inability to stop drinking is a function of the underlying ailment.”

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