The filling of a judicial vacancy provides a unique opportunity to examine not only the appointment or election process, but also the court itself and its work. For obvious reasons, this has been recognized in connection with the Supreme Court of the United States,1 where vacancies are often the subject of much conjecture but, because of life tenure, remain essentially unpredictable. On a less lofty plane, the opportunity to take stock also occurs in other courts, and the timing, at least, is less a matter of speculation in non-Article III courts, where judges serve for fixed terms.
A case in point is the expiration of Chief Judge Andrew S. Effron’s term on the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (referred to here as the Court of Appeals) on September 30, 2011. It is appropriate to consider the process for filling his seat; the standards that, based on the law and past experience, must, could, or should not be taken into account in choosing a successor; and the possible impact on the court and its jurisprudence.
While national security law covers a broad swath, military justice is a key component, since good order and discipline are integral to a credible military capacity, and notwithstanding the remarkable trend towards the use of high technology in national defense, uniformed personnel – human beings – and their conduct (both actual and desired) remain the heart of the matter. Hence, the filling of Judge Effron’s seat is properly viewed as potentially impacting on national security.
It is impossible to have a meaningful debate over whether a civilian court or a military commission is a more appropriate forum for trying terrorism suspects so long as serious questions remain over whether the commissions may constitutionally exercise jurisdiction over particular offenses and/or offenders. And yet, although a number of defendants have attempted to challenge the jurisdiction of the military commissions – especially under the MCA – none of their cases have managed to produce a decision on the merits from any court higher than the Court of Military Commission Review (CMCR). Instead, the federal courts have generally relied on ‘abstention’ doctrine, holding that challenges to the commissions, including to their jurisdiction, can – and should – be resolved on post-conviction appeal. … [T]he time has long since passed for a careful explication of the issues, the relevant precedents, and the most likely answers.
At the January 2009 Association of American Law Schools’ Section on National Security Law panel discussion, I and others urged the incoming Obama administration to make a clear and decisive break with the Bush administration’s national security policies. Six months later, the new Administration has not done so. Rather, it has acted in a contradictory manner: boldly asserting in its first days that it would ban torture and close Guantánamo, but in practice continuing many of the Bush antiterrorism policies. President Obama’s major speech on Guantánamo and other national security issues reiterated his desire to close Guantánamo, but also argued that the United States could hold detainees in custody indefinitely without trial or try them by military commissions. The Administration has adopted the Bush administration position that detainees held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan indefinitely have no right to seek habeas corpus in U.S. courts. It has also continued to assert the state secrets privilege to attempt to block lawsuits seeking accountability for extraordinary rendition and torture.