AUSTIN – The Supreme Court of Texas reversed an appeals court decision Dec. 7, 2017, addressing the power of the court in the political question doctrine after a military dog bit a woman on a base in Afghanistan.
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht delivered the opinion while Justice Paul Green, Justice Phil Johnson, Justice Debra Lehrmann, Justice Jeff Boyd, Justice Jeff Brown, Justice Jimmy Blacklock joined. Justice Eva Guzman responded with a dissenting opinion. Justice John Devine filed a dissenting opinion that Guzman joined.
"We conclude that the dispute cannot be resolved without inquiry into military judgments that the political question doctrine precludes. We hold that the claim is nonjusticiable and, therefore, the district court correctly dismissed it," the ruling states.
The political question doctrine instructs that “the Judicial Branch will abstain from matters committed by constitution and law to the Executive and Legislative Branches,” according to the opinion. It also says the decisions concerning military force always fall under civilian control of the Legislative and Executive Branches.
This was a major factor in the case as the Army was blamed for a military dog biting LaTasha Freeman, a civilian who worked as an administrative clerk at Camp Mike Spann, where the incident took place in 2011.
The ruling states that explosive-detection dog Kallie, owned by American K-9 Detection Services LLC (AMK9), also sued over the incident, ran out of a kennel designed by the Army and jumped on Freeman. An incident report said Freeman didn’t experience any injuries and only suffered a ripped jacket.
Kallie was able to run out of the shelter she was housed in because the door to the pen next to hers was left open, the ruling states. Each pen was separated by a divider that was open on the top, and the dog jumped over it. AMK9’s manager denied Kallie’s attack against Freeman and said the dog was simply trying to play with her, the ruling states.
Still, Freeman sued her private military contractor employer under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act and the Defense Base Act in 2013. She settled for $250,000. She also sued AMK9 and Hill Country Dog Center LLC over allegations they didn’t train Kallie properly. Freeman said she has complex pain syndrome and is now disabled and seeks $1 million in damages.
The issue of political doctrine comes in as AMK9 pointed the blame at the Army because it designed the kennel. AMK9 filed a plea to the jurisdiction, stating Freeman’s allegations are nonjusticiable via the political question doctrine considering the claims call for an evaluation of how the Army is connected to the incident and her injuries. AMK9 requested to have the Army and the Department of Defense listed as responsible parties. The trial court granted the motion as well as AMK9’s plea and dismissed the case altogether.
Freeman challenged the ruling in the Court of Appeals 13th District of Texas, which reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision. While the court recognized the Army’s potential fault in the case, it didn’t agree with the political question doctrine being a factor. It stated AMK9 failed to provide evidence that it was actually the Army’s design that caused the attack and injuries. AMK9 and Hill County filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court looked at the Army’s involvement to determine if it had any fault. It first stated while the Army’s only responsibility was to build the kennel, it still required Kallie to stay in it. The next point is that the Army’s design that included a boundary without a cover could have played a part in the attack. Still, the court determined it can’t rule on the Army’s design because it’s a matter that falls under the federal political branch.
It ultimately said the trial court was correct in dismissing the case previously. It reiterated it’s not a matter of the Army’s liability, but rather if the court has jurisdiction to rule on a military matter, something the Texas court cannot address. It also added the allegations against Hill Country should be dismissed for the same reasons as it reversed the appeals court decision and dismissed all claims.