On the Conflation of the State Secrets Privilege and the Totten Doctrine
The state secrets privilege (SSP) has become a major hindrance to litigation that seeks to challenge abuses of executive power in the context of the War on Terror. The Supreme Court first embraced and gave shape to the SSP as an evidentiary privilege in a 1953 case, United States v. Reynolds. Increasingly, the government relies on the SSP to seek pre-discovery dismissal of suits alleging torts and constitutional violations by the government. Lower federal courts have permitted such pre-discovery dismissal because they have confused the SSP with a non-justiciability doctrine derived from an 1875 case, Totten v. United States. The Tottendoctrine only applies to claims brought by people who have entered into voluntary relationships with the government, but it is now being invoked when the government seeks dismissal of tort claims through the SSP. While the government should invoke the SSP whenever necessary to prevent disclosure of information that might jeopardize national security, such invocations of the SSP should never result in pre-discovery dismissal.