Thursday, June 25, 2009

2d Circuit grants conscientious objector status to military doctor

The Court of Appeals holds that a military doctor is entitled to conscientious objector status, crediting his belief that American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted him to sincerely change his mind about the morality of war.

The case is Watson v. Geren, decided on June 25. Watson is a doctor who joined the army in 1998. In 2004-05, after much soul-searching and study, Watson determined that he is opposed to all war, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in particular. He decided that his beliefs are incompatible with working for the army. The decision highlights the extensive process comprising the application for conscientious objector status, as Watson had to detail his beliefs, including when he developed his opposition to war. The application mentioned that he marched in anti-war rallies. Here is what he wrote, in part:

Over the past eight plus years of my medical training, more than seven years since the signing of my contract with the Army, the single unifying theme of all my academic and professional endeavors has been the improvement of individuals’ health and wellbeing.

The world and I both have since changed significantly from when I first entered this contractual relationship with the U.S. Army. As a form of retaliation and under the pretense of national security, the United States military has invaded and occupied a foreign country in an unprecedented pre-emptive war and I have become a doctor who now views war as an unacceptable lapse of reason, the ultimate act of futility and an entirely shameful human endeavor.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 and our subsequent response in Afghanistan and Iraq have been profound catalysts for introspection, and constitute a radical turning point in my life. These ongoing events have led me to reconsider many of my views on life, God, religion, government, politics, and ultimately my role as a human being here and now on this small planet.

We live in a radically different world than we did before September 11, 2001 and our response with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I am a changed person as a result. These ongoing wars, and the mass death and destruction resulting from them, have led me to more fully comprehend the immorality, cruelty and arbitrariness of violence in general, and particularly the futility of violent retaliation. They have led me to detest violence and reject it completely. These events, for me personally and my generation, are comparable to the massive loss of human life inflicted during the Vietnam War and its profound effect on the moral, ethical, and political beliefs of millions of young people at that time.

A significant part of my response to these horrific events was to learn more about violence, the causes of violence, and alternatives to violence. They also caused me to search deeply within myself and to question my beliefs about life, death, warfare, violence and God.

But it's not easy to get conscientious objector status. Watson's chain of command recommended that his application be rejected, claiming that Watson's statements were vague and that his primary objection is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisionmaker rejected the application in a one-page ruling that he "did not present convincing evidence ... that the applicant’s stated beliefs warrant award of [conscientious objector] status."

The district court granted Watson's habeas corpus petition, and the Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Katzmann and McLaughlin) affirms, ruling that there was no basis in fact for the army's rejection of Watson's request, and that the government's rationales on appeal are not convincing.

The U.S. argued, among other things, that the timing of Watson's request -- his residency was ending and active duty was approaching -- was expedient, and that he merely offered a "grab bag of references to various political and religious figures" to justify his opposition to war (including Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Martin Luther King, by the way). But timing alone is not enough to reject the application, the Second Circuit says, and Watson was not just opposed to the current wars but all wars in principle. It was those wars that made Watson change his mind about war, but his application did express philosophical opposition to war in general. The Court of Appeals also shot down the government's contemptuous argument that Watson offered a "grab bag" of intellectual sources for his newfound objection to war.

The government also held it against Watson that he had a good lawyer to help him complete the application. There is little case law in the area of testing the sincerity of a conscientious objection, but the Second Circuit does find a case from 1976 that holds "it is impermissible to allow any negative inference about an applicant’s sincerity to be drawn from his attempts to procure legal advice from whatever source.” Goldstein v. Middendorf, 535 F.2d 1339, 1344 (1st Cir. 1976).

As there was no reason to doubt Watson's sincerity in opposing war in principle, the government wrongly denied his conscientious objector application, and Watson wins the case.


Anonymous said...

the link to the case no longer works

Anonymous said...

the link to the case, and in the original post, doesn't work

Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog said...

Link fixed.