The Supreme Court heard oral argument last week in Hernandez v. Mesa, a case about the constitutional rights of a Mexican teen, Sergio Hernandez, shot and killed by U.S. border patrol, while the officer stood in America and Hernandez stood just over the Mexican side of the border. There is no doubt that if Hernandez were American or shot on U.S. soil, then he would be afforded constitutional rights and could bring constitutional claims against the officer. But the fact that he was an alien, technically abroad, has led lower courts to find that Hernandez had no constitutional rights when shot, even if the force used was unwarranted, even though the officer stood on U.S. soil, and even though Hernandez stood just feet across the border. On the surface, this presents an interesting and important issue in and of itself. But what makes this case even more interesting are its ramifications extending well beyond just another shooting at the border.
If the government ultimately wins this case, it will likely mean that the Supreme Court fears those ramifications more than it sympathizes with the family of the teen.
El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico straddle the Rio Grande river, and in areas where the river has run dry, a concrete channel, or culvert, separates the U.S. and Mexico. Through the center of the culvert runs an invisible border between the two countries. Sergio Hernandez, a 15 year old Mexican citizen, was playing in the culvert with a group of friends, taking turns touching the wall on the U.S. side and hurrying back to the Mexican side. One of the children was apprehended by a border patrol agent named Jesus Mesa. While the remaining boys fled to Mexico, Hernandez hid behind a pillar from an overpassing bridge, having physically crossed the invisible border back into Mexico. Agent Mesa then shot Sergio Hernandez in the face, killing him. The two stood only 60 feet apart at the time. Video of the incident indicates that Hernandez does not appear to be posing any threat when shot and killed, and instead is merely peaking out from the pillar when shot.
Hernandez’s family sued the United States and Agent Mesa. After losing in the lower courts, the family petitioned for certiorari to the Supreme Court on two questions: 1) whether Hernandez’s 4th and 5th Amendment rights were violated, and 2) whether Mesa was entitled to qualified immunity, which provides liability to government officials if their conduct does not violate a “clearly established” constitutional right. In granting cert, the Supreme Court added a third question: whether Hernandez had a right to even sue in the first place, via what is called a Bivens action. Among the issues before the Supreme Court, whether the force used against Hernandez was justified is not one of them. Rather, even assuming that the shooting was unwarranted, does Hernandez have cognizable constitutional rights in the first place?
II. SKIING THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
Among the pantheon of insufferable things said daily in 1L classes across our nation, “slippery slope” ranks pretty high up there. That and “ipso facto.” But this is a quintessential case where the slippery slope (Oh god, kill me) really does lead us to bigger problems than that with which we started.
Sure, when an agent fires a weapon from inside the U.S. and shoots an alien right at the border with no justification, we see inherent injustice in denying rights or remedies to the individual. But where do we draw the line?
What about when a U.S. sniper kills a drug cartel leader (or his innocent wife) 2,000 feet away? Or when a drone operator in New York strikes the family of an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen? Or, even more abstractly, when a member of U.S. Cyber Command remotely accesses and searches a family computer belonging to a suspected Russia-based hacker?
All of those issues involve U.S. government officers taking action against aliens abroad from within the United States, and yet in all of these situations we understand that the Constitution does not and should not apply. Clearly, if the Court were to issue a broad holding in this case, its application could go far beyond border shootings and implicate a litany of global national security concerns.
At oral argument, many of the Justices expressed their apprehension in ruling for the Hernandez family for this exact reason. Justice Kagan began questioning by asking what Hernandez’s proposed constitutional rule was. Chief Justice Roberts explicitly raised the specter of drones in Iraq being piloted from Nevada and appeared concerned that Hernandez’s proposed rule could not be “narrowly confined.” Even Justice Breyer, often cited as the most pragmatic Justice, pointedly questioned Hernandez’s counsel about how the Court’s holding in this case would be applied to other circumstances, and also echoed Chief Justice Roberts’ concerns about this case’s application to drone strikes. Critically, Justice Kennedy appeared to be quite hesitant to extend the right to bring suit against the federal government to aliens abroad. Later, however, during questioning of counsel for Agent Mesa, the four “liberal” members of the Court appeared to be sympathetic to Hernandez’s case and willing to ultimately draw a pragmatic line between this situation and the parade of horribles listed above.
Ultimately, like with many cases, the vote will likely come down to Justice Kennedy. In two prior cases involving the rights of aliens abroad, Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008) and United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259 (1990), Justice Kennedy appeared to take a practical approach to determining whether the Constitution applied. Boumediene asked whether prisoners in Guantanamo Bay could file a writ of habeas corpus to contest their indefinite detention. Justice Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority along with the Court’s “liberal” wing, found that practical considerations dictated that the Constitution applied, even though Guantanamo Bay technically was located in Cuba, not the United States. In Verdugo-Urquidez, a Mexican citizen facing trial in the U.S. claimed that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the U.S. government searched his properties located in Mexico. The Court ultimately ruled that he did not possess Fourth Amendment rights, with Justice Kennedy issuing a concurring opinion finding that it would be “impracticable and anomalous” to apply the Fourth Amendment in that situation. In both cases, Justice Kennedy endorsed practical tests to determine the constitutional rights of aliens abroad.
III. WHO WILL WIN
Who wins this case ultimately comes down to what the Justices really feel this case is about. I see a handful of different scenarios unfolding.
a. Shutting Pandora’s Box
If the Court sees this case as opening the door to a wide range of constitutional attacks on U.S. conduct abroad, then it is very unlikely to find for Hernandez. The Supreme Court is typically loath to issue broad, sweeping opinions, for the exact reason that presents itself here. Supreme Court opinions go beyond just affirming or reversing the lower courts, and instead include a holding and a rationale which will be extensively reviewed and applied by lower courts in situations much different than the specific facts of this particular case. In the words of Justice Breyer at oral argument in this case, “[w]e write some words…. The problem is other people will read those words, and there are all kinds of things that happen…” This is the Supreme Court’s general concern in a nutshell, and it is exacerbated here. Unless a majority of the Court can forge a narrow consensus with a rule of limited applicability, then we can expect the Court to avoid finding for Hernandez. That the Court, on its own, added the question of whether Hernandez could even bring suit in the first place may signify that it wishes to give itself an “out” in order to avoid a big holding here. The Court could also simply split 4-4, in which case the government would win but the Court would not even issue an opinion; this would let the Court avoid ruling on these issues altogether.
b. Protecting Law Enforcement
Moreover, the Court could also see this as a qualified immunity case, which also would bode well for the government. This case involves qualified immunity in an excessive force setting, an area in which this Court has become increasing willing to enthusiastically expand in order to protect law enforcement officers. Qualified immunity protects government officials when their conduct did not violate a “clearly established” right. Many times in the last few years, the Court has reversed lower courts (often unanimously) when they have not sufficiently protected law enforcement officers in situations where the law was not conclusive regarding their conduct or the rights at issue. See, e.g., White v. Pauly, __ U.S. ___ (2017); Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S. ___, (2015); City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 575 U.S. ___ (2015); Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. ___ (2014). Here, while the force used by Mesa was clearly established to be excessive, the constitutional rights of Hernandez – an alien abroad – are far from established. To find for Hernandez, the Court would seemingly need to find that qualified immunity hinges on whether the conduct of the officer was clearly established to be unlawful, not whether the right of the individual was clearly established. The Court may be extremely reluctant to issue such a holding, which would likely have the effect of narrowing the doctrine of qualified immunity.
c. Punting Like Ray Guy
Alternatively, the Court could simply punt (and yes, I Googled “best punter” to come up with this heading). The government has math on its side, which the Supreme Court can use to avoid the hardest issues for now. Because the Hernandez family lost in the lower court, it needs five votes to win. Further, there are three issues before the Court, and the Hernandez family must win each one in order to win. If the Court rejects just one of these issues (or ties on any of them), then the government wins. The Court has a ton of outs here and could simply choose to leave this issue for another day with a full complement of nine justices. There are just many ways in which the Court might opt to avoid ruling on the big issues here, especially given the likelihood of a 4-4 split with no opinion being issued.
d. Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar
Or, the Court might just handle this case at face value and rule accordingly, albeit with a limited holding that takes care to avoid other implications. This is an extraordinarily sympathetic case, involving an unarmed teen being unjustifiably shot at close range just over an invisible border. Further, the Hernandez’s family has argued that ruling for the government would implement an on/off switch for constitutional rights at the border, stripping Mexican citizens or their families of any civil remedies against the U.S. or its officers, who could then shoot Mexicans with impunity. As will be explained below, if Justice Kennedy lands on a limited holding with narrow applicability, then Hernandez has a great chance of winning.
e. Donald Trump
Similarly, this case could be about reining in Donald Trump’s aggressive stance on Mexico. The Court will be reluctant to issue Donald Trump and his self-described “deportation force” a blank check to incite violent confrontations at the border. The frequency of border shootings in the past decade was raised by Hernandez’ family in their briefs and was even raised in an amicus brief filed by the Mexican government in support of Hernandez. The Court’s cognizance of the president’s agenda and the possibility for unchecked aggression may lead it to limit future executive abuses by providing rights and remedies to Mexicans at the border.
f. Implementing a Practical Approach
Finally, this case may simply be Justice Kennedy’s opportunity to further implement a practical approach to the rights of aliens abroad. Justice Kennedy is the swing vote, and he has led the charge to center the constitutional inquiry for aliens abroad on practical considerations rather than bright line rules. If Justice Kennedy can determine a limiting principle separating this case from drone strikes and the like, then he may be very willing to issue an opinion conclusively adopting a practical standard for applying the Constitution for aliens abroad.
Such an Opinion would presumably center on the “impracticable or anomalous” language adopted by Justice Kennedy in Verdugo-Urquidez. By using the particular facts of this case – the fact that the culvert is jointly maintained by both the U.S. and Mexico; that the incident took place entirely at the border, and an invisible border at that, and; that it simply would not be impracticable to apply the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in border shootings such as this one – the Court could carefully draw the line. As the petitioner argues in his reply brief, there is simply nothing “impracticable or anomalous about ensuring that border guards, in carrying out their law-enforcement duties on U.S. soil, adhere to uniform constraints on the use of deadly force.” The Court, if it applies Justice Kennedy’s framework, could easily adopt this reasoning.
I believe that the two most likely scenarios are either a 4-4 tie or a narrow win – in more ways than one – for Hernandez, but anything from 6-2 for Hernandez to 8-0 for the government seems to be within the realm of possibility. Ultimately, this case has potential as a judicial Rorschach test, with the justices each seeing the core of this case in their own way and ruling accordingly.