During a back-and-forth on Lawfare with Steve Vladeck a few months ago, I suggested thatHernandez v. Mesa, pending at the Supreme Court this term, had the potential to generate a very important opinion: the Fourth Amendment issue in the case could impact the legality of worldwide extraterritorial national security activities by the U.S. government like electronic surveillance and drone strikes.
Hernandez arose out of the deadly shooting of a Mexican national in Mexico by a U.S. border patrol agent standing in the United States. Under a Supreme Court case dating back to 1990, also arising in Mexico, the Fourth Amendment does not protect noncitizens located outside the United States, unless they have some pre-existing substantial, voluntary connection to the United States. The deceased in Hernandez lacked any such connection.
But the Court’s 2008 decision in Boumediene v. Bush, applying the Constitution’s Habeas Suspension Clause to the noncitizen detainees at the Guantanamo base, arguably overruled a bright-line approach to determining the Constitution’s applicability beyond U.S borders. Instead, the Court applied totality of the circumstances analysis. Using Boumediene, the plaintiffs’ counsel in Hernandez, among whom is Steve, argued that the Court could rule for their clients on the applicability of the Fourth Amendment without opening the entire can of worms about extraterritorial national security activities. This was possible, they suggested, because like Guantanamo—Cuban sovereign territory, but leased permanently and controlled exclusively the by U.S. government—the Mexico-U.S. border area is a sui generis territory. This border, they argued, was a liminal zone of shared control with constantly traversing populations, and therefore wholly unlike purely foreign territory.
I was skeptical that the border was truly so unique and that a Fourth Amendment ruling for the plaintiffs could be cabined and limited so neatly.
On Monday, the Court vacated and remanded Hernandez to the Fifth Circuit, declining to rule on the merits of the Fourth Amendment. It avoided this constitutional issue, the Court told us, because “[t]he Fourth Amendment question in this case . . . is sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” This per curiam opinion was issued for Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Along the way the Court made important statements about Bivens (more below) and qualified immunity.
Justice Thomas concurred, saying he would have ruled for the border patrol agent on Bivens grounds. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented, essentially adopting the plaintiffs’ view of the Fourth Amendment. Justice Gorsuch did not participate, as he was seated after oral argument.
What can we glean from the per curiam’s treatment of the Fourth Amendment? We know that five justices seized the opportunity to duck the issue for now. They did so by directing the Fifth Circuit to apply the Court’s new decision in Ziglar v. Abassi on the availability of Bivens, before reaching the merits.