Smith v. Obama

217 F. Supp. 3d 283 (D.D.C. 2016)



Standing to sue is a doctrine rooted in the traditional understanding of a case or controversy. To establish standing, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that he (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. At the pleading stage, this requires the plaintiff to clearly allege facts demonstrating each element. The court notes that the standing inquiry is especially rigorous when reaching the merits of the dispute would force the court to decide whether an action taken by one of the other two branches of the Federal Government was unconstitutional.


Plaintiff is a U.S. Army Captain who was deployed, until recently, to the Kuwait headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. Operation Inherent Resolve is the designation the U.S. Department of Defense has given  to the military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ("ISIL") initiated by the United States and its allies in 2014. Plaintiff considers the operation to be a "good war" and what he signed up to be part of when he joined the military. Nonetheless, Plaintiff seeks a declaration that Operation Inherent Resolve is illegal because Congress has not authorized it. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that President Barack H. Obama has not sought Congress' authorization for military action against ISIL in accordance with the War Powers Resolution, and that neither the President's Commander-in-Chief power, nor prior Congressional authorizations for the use of force, give the President the authority to continue these actions. Defendant argued, among others, that Plaintiff's claims raised non-justiciable political questions and he lacked standing.


Whether plaintiff has standing, and if so, has raised claims that are justiciable.


No to both.


In this case where plaintiff, a U.S. Army captain, sought a declaration that Operation Inherent Resolve was illegal because Congress had not authorized it, the court held that the "injuries" upon which he grounded his claim did not constitute "injury in fact" as required to support U.S. Const. art. III standing. Neither Little nor plaintiff's oath required him to disobey his orders, nor was he forced to choose between violating the U.S. Constitution or suffering concrete harm, like plaintiffs in past cases where "oath of office" standing has been accepted. As to whether his claims raised justiciable questions, this case raised questions that were committed to the political branches of government. Disputes involving foreign relations, such as the one before the Court, are quintessential sources of political questions. The President and Department of Defense officials apparently believe that ISIL is connected with al Qaeda and that, despite public rifts, some allegiances between the groups persist and ISIL continues to pursue the same mission today as it did before allegedly splintering from al Qaeda. Plaintiff disputes these factual assertions, relying on an affidavit from scholars of Islamic Law that argue that as of today, the groups are in fact sufficiently distinct, and potentially even antagonistic, that they can no longer be viewed as the same terrorist organization. Resolving this dispute would require inquiries into sensitive military determinations, presumably made based on intelligence collected on the ground in a live theatre of combat, and potentially changing and developing on an ongoing basis. The difficulty that U.S. courts would encounter if they were tasked with 'ascertaining the 'facts' of military decisions exercised thousands of miles from the forum, lies at the heart of the determination whether the question [posed] is a 'political' one.

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