As covered on this blog, on April 16, 2019, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its decision on a petition for a writ of mandamus in the case of In re: Abd Al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed Al-Nashiri. The Circuit Court granted Al-Nishiri’s request to vacate all orders issued after November 19, 2015 by the former Air Force Chief Trial Judge—now civilian immigration judge—Vance Spath. The reason for that action was that Judge Spath issued those orders while he had a “concealed and disqualifying ethical conflict.” Opinion at 15. The saga has now drawn the attention of major news outlets – Washington Post, New York Times, Bloomberg, Fox News.
Digging into the details, the Circuit Court found that Judge Spath engaged in undisclosed negotiations for future employment with the Attorney General while simultaneously presiding over Al-Nishiri’s commission. That was a problem because not only was one of the Attorney General’s subordinates from the Department of Justice detailed to the prosecution team in Al-Nishiri, but the Circuit Court was also more generally concerned because “the Attorney General plays an important institutional role in military commissions.” Opinion at 21.
The Court found the conflict of interest to be “intolerable,” declaring:
Unbiased, impartial adjudicators are the cornerstone of any system of justice worthy of the label.
Opinion at 17.
Simply put, “a judge cannot have a prospective financial relationship with one side yet persuade the other that he can judge fairly in the case.”
While the Court’s decision in Al-Nashiri arises from the Guantanamo Bay military commissions, the rationale from the opinion naturally reverberates into the military court-martial system. If the mere possibility of a future employment relationship between Judge Spath and the Attorney General in Al-Nashiri was problematic, then the consummated relationship between every court-martial’s military judge and their respective Judge Advocate General—who appoints them, removes them, and controls their future assignments—is a particularly precarious arrangement. It is that situation that invites a deeper examination of whether military judges may properly be considered impartial.