After 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a massive investigation in which men of Middle Eastern descent who were, or were perceived to be, Arab Muslims were arrested for mostly trivial immigration violations. The government held many of the detained men in horrifying conditions for prolonged periods. The detainees were subjected to physical and psychological abuse—including beatings, sleep deprivation, denial of basic necessities, and denial of the right to file complaints over their treatment. They also were deprived of the ability to practice their faith, including requests to receive copies of the Koran and halal food. They weren’t even allowed to know the time of day so that they could properly say their prayers.
Several of the detainees filed suit in federal court against the guards who had mistreated them and the many government officials who had ordered or overseen the investigation. Fourteen years of litigation followed, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreeing to hear the case to determine, among other questions, whether the doctrine of qualified immunity prevented the case from moving forward. Under that doctrine, government officials can be held liable only for actions that violate constitutional rights that were clearly established at the time the violations occurred.
In December 2016, Americans United filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in which we argued that any reasonable law-enforcement official should have understood in 2001—when the violations occurred—that it was (as it still is) unconstitutional to round people up, incarcerate them, place them in solitary confinement, harass and abuse them, and deny them the ability to worship and practice their faith all based on their adherence to a disfavored religion. The litigation against these government officials should therefore have been allowed to proceed.
In June 2017, the Court held that the defendant government officials could not be sued.