A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court decision barring the U.S. government from transferring a U.S.-Saudi citizen currently held in military detention in Iraq to Saudi Arabia.
The 45-page opinion behind the decision remains under seal.
The detainee, known only as John Doe, was captured by Syrian forces in mid-September as a suspected Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighter and transferred to U.S. military custody in Iraq, where he has remained since.
The sealed decision, written by Judges Sri Srinivasan and Karen LeCraft Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the majority, leaves Doe's fate ambiguous. It remains unknown whether the Trump administration will seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
There is no exact legal precedent for his case and the Trump administration has struggled with how to handle the American with dual citizenship. It reportedly lacks sufficient evidence to charge him in federal court, as it has done with other U.S. citizens captured working for ISIS — but for security reasons, it is loath to simply release him.
The government recently struck a deal with a third country — confirmed to The Hill by a U.S. official to be Saudi Arabia, where Doe also holds citizenship — to take him off the U.S.’s hands.
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing Doe, had argued that forcibly transferring him would violate a Supreme Court case that requires that the government show positive legal authority, like a treaty or statute, before transferring American citizens to another government.
The prohibition is known as the "Valentine Rule" after the court case that created it.
The government had argued that Doe falls under an exception carved out by the Supreme Court in 2008 in another case, Munaf v. Geren. In that case, the court found that the government could transfer "to a sovereign’s authority of an individual captured and already detained in that sovereign’s territory."
Hinting at the thorny nature of the dispute, lengthy arguments in the case turned on question of which doctrine Doe falls under — Munaf or Valentine.
His habeas corpus petition remains pending in the district court before Judge Tanya Chutkan.