Daniel Levine-Spound is a 3L at Harvard Law School
On July 30th, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced his support for Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Although he had initially voiced concerns regarding Kavanaugh’s “record on warrantless bulk collection of data and how that might apply to very important privacy cases,” Paul ultimately backed President Trump’s choice.
Whatever one makes of Rand Paul’s waffling on privacy issues, his support for Kavanaugh speaks to an arguably deeper betrayal of his principles: opposition to the United States’ ever-expanding and seemingly interminable “War on Terror.” For few judges have shown themselves less willing to impose limits on American war-making, or more flexible in deferring to the Executive Branch on issues related to armed conflict, than Kavanaugh.
In June 2018, Paul chaired a Senate hearing on the Corker-Kaine Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a bill meant to replace the 2001 AUMF and provide new legal authority for US counterterrorism operations abroad. In his Opening Statement, Paul noted that when the 2001 AUMF was passed, “no one in Congress believed they were voting for a worldwide war on ‘terrorism’ in twenty some odd countries that would go on for decades.” Rather than limiting “the scope of war,” the proposal, Paul explained, would do the opposite, “expand[ing] the current theaters of war” and flipping the Constitution “on its head.” Although the bill references “reassert[ing] the role of Congress,” Paul’s assessment is correct: the bill’s passage would have further ceded Congress’s constitutional war-making authority, allowing “the president to wage war against six enumerated groups and add new groups in the future, all without any geographic or time constraints.”
Paul’s opposition to the Corker-Kaine bill aligns with his long-standing principles. Since his 2011 election, Paul has remained one of the Senate’s staunchest critics of the “Forever War” and unchecked executive power. In 2013, he conducted the “longest talking filibuster in recent Senate memory,” speaking from the Senate floor for over twelve-hours to block the Obama Administration’s nomination of John Brennan as head of the CIA due to his role in Obama’s drone strike program. In September 2017, Paul called explicitly for the repeal of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, lambasting the “trillions spent in seemingly endless conflicts in every corner of the globe.” He asserted that, when Congress allows the Executive Branch to “unilaterally” declare war, it “abdicates” its Constitutional responsibilities.
For anyone concerned about the “Forever War,” Paul’s past actions are laudable. But in supporting Kavanaugh, Paul has undermined over a decade of advocacy aimed at restraining US military action abroad. At a time in which the Trump Administration has publicly declared its intention to keep Guantanamo open, and has further escalated drone strikes, supporting Kavanaugh’s accession to the Supreme Court is particularly inconsistent with Paul’s publicly-stated principles.
Perhaps no issue more clearly highlights the difference between Kavanaugh and Paul than Guantanamo Bay, the infamous prison camp opened by the Bush Administration at the onset of the “War on Terror.” In 2013, Paul was one of three Republican Senators willing to back an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) loosening restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo—part of President Obama’s efforts to shrink the Guantanamo prison population. In light of that vote and other actions, Paul was characterized in 2015 as a “rare Republican presidential candidate willing to buck the party’s traditional position on an issue of national defense.”
Kavanaugh could hardly be more different. In a lengthy concurrence in Al-Bihani v. Obama, a 2010 case in which a Yemeni citizen captured in 2002 challenged his continued detention in Guantanamo, Kavanaugh disputed the notion that the international law of armed conflict places any restriction on US wartime detention. Both the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions—signed and ratified by the United States—strictly limit the permissible length and conditions of detention in armed conflict. But in spite of the Supreme Court’s recognition of these obligations, Kavanaugh would have rejected his court’s ability to enforce them on the President. In his view, “it is hard to conceive of a task less appropriate for U.S. judges…than judicial invocation…of uncertain and changing international-law norms to restrain the President and the U.S. military in waging a congressionally authorized war abroad.”
Three years later, in Razak Ali v. Obama, Kavanaugh again disputed the notion that courts, or international law, can regulate the length of detention in Guantanamo: “It is not the Judiciary’s proper role to devise a novel detention standard that varies with the length of detention. The only question before us is whether the President has authority under the AUMF to detain Ali. In conducting that analysis, we must apply the same standard in 2013 that we would have applied in the aftermath of Ali’s capture in 2002.” Following Kavanaugh’s logic, there is no reason why an individual captured in 2002 could not be held until 2030 or 2050, provided the ill-defined armed conflict authorized by the 2001 AUMF continues. For Kavanaugh, the United States’ international obligations regarding wartime conduct appear largely irrelevant: “When Congress has broadly authorized the President to take certain actions, and that broad authorization encompasses actions that might in turn violate international law, courts have no legitimate basis to invoke international law as a ground for second-guessing the President's interpretation.”
In an op-ed tracing Kavanaugh’s national-security jurisprudence, Professor Stephen Vladeck observes: “Kavanaugh’s many opinions concerning Guantanamo and related matters make it crystal clear that his confirmation would make the court far more deferential to the president’s exercise of aggressive war powers.” Vladeck highlights several decisions animated by the same principle seemingly at work in Al-Bihani: extreme deference to the executive on matters related to armed conflict. In Saleh, et al. v. Titan, et al., a federal class action lawsuit filed on behalf of over 250 Iraqi civilians tortured by private US military contractors at Abu Ghraib, Kavanaugh joined a majority decision “barring state-law tort claims against a private military contractor.” Saleh’s majority focused on concerns that liability could hinder the war-effort: “Allowance of such suits will surely hamper military flexibility and cost-effectiveness.” As in Al-Bihani and Razak Ali, Kavanaugh’s opposition to judicial involvement in armed conflict—and his extreme deference to the executive branch—dictated his vote.
As the “War on Terror” trudges into its 17th year, Rand Paul faces an important choice: will he vote “yes” on the nomination of a judge committed to seemingly unfettered executive power in all matters related to wartime conduct? Or will he uphold the constitutional principles he has long espoused, and refuse to assent to Kavanaugh’s nomination?
His legacy of opposing endless war and advocating checks on presidential power may depend on the answer.