On October 26th, by a 2-1 vote, a panel of judges of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has overruled a District Court’s decision that it lacked jurisdiction to hear a substantive challenge to the order by the “Terrorist Screening Center” (TSC) placing a US citizen on the “No-fly” list.
While the decision was based on arcane-seeming jurisdictional issues, and the government is already maneuvering to evade it and some other similar court decisions, it is a significant victory for the fundamental right to a trial in cases of challenges to no-fly orders.
The decision sends the lawsuit brought by Mr. Saeb Mokdad, represented by the Arab-American Civil Rights League, back to the US District Court in Michigan where it was first filed more than two years ago.
The TSC is an inter-agency and inter-departmental entity, but the government has assigned nominal “ownership” of the TSC and its decisions — including, until recently, final authority for no-fly orders — to the FBI (a component of the Department of Justice).
At the same time, the government has argued that any challenges to the TSC’s no-fly orders must be made first through the kangaroo-court DHS TRIP administrative process, and then in a Court of Appeals that is allowed to consider only the “administrative record” of the TSA’s decision, as supplied to the court by the TSA itself.
Unlike some other people who have tried to challenge the government’s interference with their right to travel, Mr. Mokdad didn’t sue the TSA or DHS for implementing the TSC’s decision to put him on the no-fly list. Instead, he sued the TSC, FBI, and DOJ for ordering the TSA and DHS to put him on the no-fly list.
The government’s position is that no challenge to a no-fly order can be made with the agency that made the decision (the TSC/FBI/DOJ), and that any court review of the TSC decision must be based solely on TSA records (which will show, at most, that the TSA relied on a no-fly order from the TSC, and may not show anything about the factual basis, if any, or the criteria or procedures relied on by the TSC in its decision).
In its decision this week, the 6th Circuit rejected that duplicitous government position:
To the extent that Mokdad brings a direct challenge to his placement by TSC on the No Fly List, … he is challenging a TSC order, not a TSA order…. TSA does not determine who is placed on the No Fly List; TSC does. Notwithstanding the government’s attempts to characterize his claim as a challenge to TSA’s decision to deny him boarding, Mokdad makes clear that he is “challeng[ing] his actual placement on the No Fly List by the TSC.” R. 17, Appellant Br., 11. TSC is administered by the FBI. The fact that TSC is an inter-agency center that is staffed by officials from multiple agencies, including the FBI, DHS, Department of State, Customs and Border Protection, and also TSA, does not transform TSC’s order placing an individual on the No Fly List into an order of the TSA.
The 6th Circuit panel correctly held that the law assigning exclusive jurisdiction over challenges to TSA orders to Circuit Courts of Appeal, based on TSA administrative records, does not apply to challenges to TSC or other FBI orders — including no-fly listing orders.
The FBI’s hypocrisy in Mr. Mokdad’s case hasn’t been limited to its arguments in court. The FBI has told Mr. Mokdad that it can’t tell him anything about why it put him on the no-fly list, and can’t even confirm or deny that he is barred from flying (although that’s obvious from the fact that he is denied boarding whenever he tries to fly). At the same time that the FBI officially declined to comment or give any information to Mr. Moktad, the FBI was happy to disclose derogatory alleagations about him to the local newspaper of record, the Detroit Free Press, in the form of leaks by “sources familiar with Mokdad” about what “the FBI suspects”.
Unfortunately, the next move in this legal chess game was already played by the government between the time that Mr. Mokdad’s case was argued a little over a year ago and when it was decided this week. While the Court of Appeals was contemplating its decision, the government shifted nominal final responsibility for no-fly decisions from the TSC/FBI/DOJ to the TSA/DHS, to try to bring them back within the scope of the jurisdiction-stripping statute, 49 USC §46110 (the Constitutionality of which is already being challenged in another no-fly case).
It’s unclear, in light of this evasive move by the government, what will happen to Mr. Mokdad’s case on remand. The next step will be discovery, and likely an assertion by the government in response that everything about no-fly decisions is a “state secret”. Even if Mr. Mokdad eventually puts the FBI on trial, as has happened in only one no-fly case to date, he might win only a Pyrrhic victory, overturning the TSC’s no-fly order but then having to start from scratch, in a different court, with a new challenge to a new TSA no-fly order. Stay tuned.