Supreme Court Backs Muslim Men in Case on No-Fly List

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of three Muslim men who say they were put on the no-fly list in retaliation for refusing to become government informants.

The court also dismissed a challenge to Delaware’s court system, which takes account of the political affiliations of judges in an attempt to achieve ideological balance.

The decisions were among four unanimous rulings issued Thursday, the first ones in cases argued in the term that started in October. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in any of the cases, which were argued before she joined the court.

The decision concerning the Muslim men, Tanzin v. Tanvir, No. 19-71, said they were entitled to seek damages from officers they say tried to force them to violate their religious beliefs by spying on other Muslims. The men had sued under a federal law protecting religious liberty, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the legal question was whether it allows suits for money against government officials.

The Trump administration, which in other settings has taken a broad view of the law, had urged the court to dismiss the suit, saying it would interfere with “sensitive matters of national security and law enforcement.”

The legal proceedings are at an early stage, and the court was required to assume that the version of events set out in the lawsuit was true.

The lead plaintiff, Muhammad Tanvir, was a lawful permanent resident who lived in Queens and worked as a long-haul truck driver, and his job often required him to fly home after completing his deliveries. But when he tried to get on a flight in Atlanta in October 2010, the lawsuits said, he was turned away. Two F.B.I. agents drove him to a bus station, and it took him about 24 hours to get home.

Mr. Tanvir quit his job. On three occasions, he bought plane tickets to visit his mother in Pakistan, who was in failing health. He was not allowed to fly. Throughout, agents told him that they would help him get off the list — if he cooperated.

After Mr. Tanvir and two other men who said they were subjected to similar pressure to become informants sued the agents in 2013, the government told them that they could fly again. That left open the question of whether they were entitled to damages for the harm they had suffered.

A trial judge dismissed the case, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, revived it. The 1993 law, Judge Rosemary S. Pooler wrote for the panel, allowed Mr. Tanvir to seek money from the agents.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court on Thursday, agreed. “There may be policy reasons why Congress may wish to shield government employees from personal liability, and Congress is free to do so,” he wrote. “But there are no constitutional reasons why we must do so in its stead.”

Justice Thomas noted that the agents may nevertheless be protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields government officials from suits over violations of constitutional rights that were not clearly established at the time of the conduct in question. That issue was not before the court.

In the case from Delaware, Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309, the court ruled that a lawyer challenging partisan balancing in the state’s judiciary had not suffered the sort of concrete injury that gave him standing to sue. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the court, said the lawyer, James R. Adams, seemed more interested in the abstract legal question of whether the system violated the First Amendment than in actually becoming a judge.

Delaware’s court system is both widely admired and idiosyncratic, a product of two unusual provisions in its Constitution. One says that judges affiliated with any one political party cannot make up more than a bare majority of the state’s five main courts. The other says that only judges affiliated with one of the two major parties may sit on the Delaware Supreme Court and two other courts.

Mr. Adams, a longtime Democrat who became what he called a “Bernie Sanders independent” around the time he sued, challenged the provisions, and the federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled in his favor.

But Justice Breyer said Mr. Adams had not demonstrated that he had standing to sue, as he had not applied for vacancies for which he had been eligible when he was a Democrat, came out of retirement and changed his affiliation around the time he filed his suit, and took no steps to apply for a judgeship.

“Lawyers, such as Adams, may feel sincerely and strongly that Delaware’s laws should comply with the federal Constitution,” Justice Breyer wrote. “But that kind of interest does not create standing.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the two provisions challenged by Mr. Adams presented distinct issues.

“Bare majority requirements preclude any single political party from having more than a bare majority of the seats in a public body,” she wrote. “Such requirements have existed in various forums for roughly 150 years, currently feature in a large number of public bodies and have been shown to help achieve ideological diversity.”

“Major party requirements like Delaware’s, by contrast, preclude anyone who is not a member of the two major political parties from serving in a public body,” she wrote. “They are far rarer than their bare majority cousins, and they arguably impose a greater burden on First Amendment associational rights.”

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