The US District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday that accuses President Joe Biden of being complicit in genocide in Gaza because of the president’s support for Israel’s military operation. The decision, written by Judge Jeffrey S. White, hinged on jurisdictional questions and did not speak to the substantive claims of the lawsuit.
Various humanitarian groups, including the Defense for Children International- Palestine, filed the lawsuit in November. It accused President Joe Biden of being complicit in genocide in Gaza and asked the court to block Biden and the Secretary of Defense from providing further material support to Israel’s military operations in the territory. The Biden administration filed a motion to dismiss, saying there was not a justiciable claim and that the court did not have jurisdiction to rule on this matter.
Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure says that a motion to dismiss is proper when there is a “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The initial lawsuit said that the Biden administration was “failing to uphold the country’s obligation to prevent a genocide” under the Genocide Convention and that their military and diplomatic support for Israel “enabled the conditions for its [genocide] development.” The International Court of Justice recently ruled that claims of genocide in Gaza are “plausible” and ordered Israel to take all possible action to prevent genocide in the coastal territory.
Judge White noted the ICJ’s ruling, saying in his conclusion that “it is plausible that Israel’s conduct amounts to genocide” and imploring the Biden administration to “examine the results of their unflagging support of the military siege against the Palestinians in Gaza.” However, he granted the motion to dismiss because of the political question doctrine.
The political question doctrine seeks to strengthen the separation of powers between different branches of government, limiting courts’ jurisdiction to “cases and controversies.” This means that questions that are mostly political must be resolved by the executive and legislative branches, not by the judiciary. There are six criteria for the political question doctrine, and only one needs to be present to trigger a lack of jurisdiction: (1) the text of the constitution gives jurisdiction over an issue to a political branch of government; (2) there is a lack of discoverable and manageable judicial standards for resolving the issue; (3) the issue cannot be decided without making a policy decision reserved for the political branches; (4) the court cannot make an independent decision without violating respect to other branches; (5) “an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made;” and (6) the potential embarrassment of courts and political branches coming to different conclusions.
White emphasized that foreign policy “is constitutionally committed to the political branches of government,” citing precedent saying just that. This means foreign policy disputes are “considered nonjusticiable political questions” and the court does not have jurisdiction to resolve them. Because foreign policy is at the center of the case, and foreign policy is the purview of the executive and legislative branches, White says the Biden administration’s support for Israel is a political question and the courts do not have jurisdiction in this case. If the court does not have jurisdiction, then the plaintiffs cannot state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and the court must dismiss the case.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of humanitarian groups, criticized the dismissal on jurisdictional grounds but still called the ruling “a historic rebuke of Israel and the United States.” Mohammed Monadel Herzallah, one of the Palestinian plaintiffs in the case, went on to say:
It is important that the court recognized the United States is providing unconditional support to Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza and that a federal court heard Palestinian voices for the first time, but we are still devastated that the court would not take the important step to stop the Biden administration from continuing to support the slaughter of the Palestinian people. Currently, my family lacks food, medicine, and the most basic necessities for survival. As Palestinians, we know this is a hard struggle, and as plaintiffs we will continue to do everything in our power to save our people’s lives.
The Biden administration has not yet commented on the ruling.
Jurist, Legal News & Commentary, 2024