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Watson v. Green

June 25, 2009

TIMOTHY D. WATSON, PETITIONER-APPELLEE,
v.
PETE GEREN, SECRETARY OF THE ARMY, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Nina Gershon, Judge), granting Dr. Timothy Watson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus in a case involving an application for discharge as a conscientious objector. We hold that, in the ordinary course, where the Department of the Army Conscientious Objector Review Board (the "DACORB") fails to state its reasons for denying an application for discharge as a conscientious objector, remand to the Army for an adequate statement of reasons is appropriate.

However, remand would be futile, and is therefore not required, where there is no basis in fact to support the DACORB's decision. Because the record contains no basis in fact to support denial of Dr. Watson's application on any valid ground, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Katzmann, Circuit Judge

Argued: April 22, 2009

Before MCLAUGHLIN, CALABRESI, and KATZMANN, Circuit Judges.

We are called upon to review a matter involving a doctor's application for discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector. Respondent-Appellant Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army (hereinafter, "the Army"), appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Nina Gershon, Judge), granting Petitioner-Appellee Dr. Timothy Watson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Watson applied for discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector. His application was denied by the Department of the Army Conscientious Objector Review Board (the "DACORB"). The district court held that the DACORB failed to provide an adequate statement of reasons to explain its decision and granted the writ. On appeal, the Army does not challenge the district court's determination that the DACORB did not provide an adequate statement of reasons. Instead, it argues that the district court erred in refusing to remand the case to the DACORB. We hold that, in the ordinary course, where the DACORB fails to state its reasons for denying an application for discharge as a conscientious objector, remand to the DACORB for an adequate statement of reasons is appropriate. However, remand would be futile, and is therefore not required, where there is no basis in fact to support the DACORB's denial on any valid ground. In this case, as there is no basis in fact to support denial of Dr. Watson's application on any valid ground, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

BACKGROUND

In 1998, while attending medical school at George Washington University, Timothy Watson applied for a scholarship under the United States Army Health Professions Scholarship Program. The Army offered to pay for Watson's remaining three years of medical school in exchange for Watson's commitment to serve three years of active duty after he completed his schooling. After graduating from medical school in 2001, Watson entered a one-year internship program in internal medicine and, afterwards, enrolled in a four-year civilian residency program in radiology. The Army deferred Watson's active duty obligation during this period to allow him to complete his internship and residency.

On January 3, 2006, during the last year of his residency, Watson applied for discharge as a conscientious objector, pursuant to Army Regulation 600-43. Because the contents of Watson's application are vital to our analysis of whether there was a basis in fact to support the DACORB's decision, we include extensive excerpts from the application here.*fn1

In response to a question requesting a description of the nature of the belief that required Watson to seek conscientious objector status, Watson wrote:

I believe that warfare is immoral. I cannot participate in warfare or support warfare in any form. I cannot kill other human beings or assist those who do. My position stems from my moral, ethical and religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of human life, the power of non-violent resistance, and the role I have been called to play, and have chosen to play, in my journey through this precious and extraordinary life. I have given these issues profound thought over the past few years, and continue to give them profound thought, and my firm conclusion is that I cannot be a soldier. I cannot kill other human beings or assist those who do. I cannot support institutions that kill and make war. I prefer going to jail over killing or being part of an institution that kills. I prefer to die than to kill.

Furthermore, as preparation for war and the conduct of warfare are the defining principles of military service and training, I no longer consider my work as a physician congruent with active participation in any military organization. I am morally opposed to participation in military activities of any kind. My work as a physician is in direct opposition to the purpose of all armed forces and the prospect of my future employment as a physician in the Army Medical Corps is utterly incompatible with my beliefs regarding war, justice and God.

Participating in the care of injured active service members, thereby speeding their recovery and return to active military operations, results in the functional equivalent of weaponizing human beings. Because war is inherently inaccurate, collateral injuries to noncombatants are inevitable; my future participation in the Army would result in a perversion of my training and work as a doctor. In the Army, my work to heal would result, however indirectly, in the infliction of unnecessary wounds and loss of life. I cannot in good conscience justify these results, and will not voluntarily participate in them. . . .

. . . . . . . As a physician now morally opposed to killing and war, my separation from the U.S. Army is essential to my ability to live life and face death with a clear conscience. I cannot willfully undertake any actions that will violate my conscience and deeply held moral, religious, and ethical beliefs. I am no soldier; and I am no longer a physician who will work for an institution of war.

Joint Appendix ("J.A.") 182-83.

Responding to a request regarding how his beliefs changed or developed, including what sources and training had caused the change, Watson stated:

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 well-being. 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.

J.A. 183-84.

Watson went on to explain the sources of non-violence he had studied, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and others. He quoted from the Christian Bible, the Qur'an, the Rig Veda, and Dr. King. Watson commented that Eastern philosophies and writers, from Hinduism and Gandhi to Islam, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tse, were also a source of great inspiration. According to Watson, in all of those sources, there was no suggestion that war or killing was an answer or a solution. Instead, the use of violence is strikingly and consistently discredited as morally abject and spiritually void. Granted my study of the worlds great religions is relatively still in its infancy, but those leaders of men most widely admired and revered today overwhelmingly are not history's warmonger's but it's peacemakers. I choose to stand on the side of the peacemakers and will therefore not wear a military uniform ever again.

J.A. 185.

In conclusion, Watson explained that in addition to taking the time to read the Bible and research other religious texts, he joined and participated in peace organizations and marched in New York and Washington to stop the war in Iraq.

. . . I do now know that warfare is immoral, unnecessary, and completely incompatible with my purpose in life. The military science of exerting violent force against another should be beneath us by now, an abominable and wretched last resort representing nothing more than a failure of reason and morality -- the unique qualities which most exemplify what it means to be human. With the overwhelming abundance of wealth in the world today, there are no rational arguments for war and I, as a being of freewill, refuse to participate in its practice at any level.

J.A. 186.

The next question required an explanation of when Watson's beliefs became incompatible with military service. Watson stated that his decision began to take form in late 2004 and crystallized by early Summer 2005.

Asked about the circumstances in which Watson believed the use of force was permissible, he responded:

The use of violent force and warfare in the name of defense can quickly become a slippery slope leading to unnecessary harm and war for the sake of mindless revenge. I am not however a strict pacifist. I would forcibly defend my loved ones and myself against physical attack if need be, but not to inflict harm or extract retribution.

J.A. 186. Further, Watson explained that while he had no objections to the civilian police force, he was morally opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances.

To a question asking what in Watson's life conspicuously demonstrated the consistency and depth of his beliefs, Watson responded that he set aside time each day for reflection (what others might call meditation and prayer), during which he committed himself to the goal of having his deeds express humble, selfless love and goodwill. He also viewed his application as a conspicuous act of selflessness and morally sound goodwill. I make my request for conscientious objector status, solemnly and with full understanding of the potential consequences I am opening myself to. I understand I may forfeit all future benefits from the Veterans Administration. I understand I will be required to remit all costs incurred by the US Army for my medical training. I understand that the relationships with my family and friends will continue to be tested because of my decision. I understand that I may be stigmatized by society at large for the rest of my life. I understand that I may be forced to choose between being a soldier and going to prison. And I certainly understand that being a military doctor for a few years is a far easier and more practical solution to this situation.

Regardless, these consequences are outweighed by the prospect of the use of my skill and any of my effort in participation with an organization that is directly opposed to my beliefs. No matter the difficulties this decision may bring, I will not voluntarily work for the U.S. Army, nor any other branch of the United States military. Affiliating myself and my work as a physician with any institution of war is morally unacceptable to me and I refuse to do so simply to avoid personal hardships.

J.A. 188-89.

Finally, in response to a question regarding how his daily life and future plans had changed as a result of his beliefs, Watson stated that his goal to lead a life based on love and goodwill had made him more introspective, more curious and more questioning. "I now think much more about how my individual choices, actions and inactions, may impact others and while this has made me more courteous, polite, solemn and quiet, it has also made me more questioning, skeptical, demanding and resolute." J.A. 189. Watson described that he had participated in a march on Washington D.C. organized by United for Peace and Justice and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, and joined Physicians for Social Responsibility, an organization focused on nuclear disarmament, gun control, and environmental issues. His professional goals changed as well--he decided to pursue a career in oncology imaging and intervention, a psychologically and physically demanding area of radiology in which he hoped to fulfill his responsibility to help others. Watson also explained that he would strive to teach his son religious tolerance, and would expose him, at an early age, to the heroes it had taken him his entire life to discover. Watson then included quotations from those heroes: Dr. King, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Krishna, the Dalai Lama and Lao-Tse.

Finally, Watson wrote:

As an offer of good faith to serve my country and to honor the larger contract I entered into with the U.S. government in 1998, I would fulfill my active duty obligation attending to the care of medically underserved populations throughout this country as a civilian physician via the United States Department of Health and Human Services Public Health and Indian Health Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs Health System or other institutions charged with the medical care of non-active duty military, civilian U.S. citizens.

J.A. 191.

In addition to his written application, Watson submitted ten letters of support from family members and colleagues. Because these letters are also vital to our consideration of whether there was a basis in fact to support the DACORB's decision, we include relevant excerpts here.

George D. Watson, Timothy's father, who served in the United States Army Reserve from 1963-69, wrote that Timothy had always been a sincere and honest person . . . . However, his attitude toward the direction our country's foreign policy is taking and his concerns about war and life-taking have been growing more intense. He now has a greater interest in the sanctity of life and is more vehement in his positions.

Timothy's decision has been a hard one to accept. My beliefs are not totally his and his beliefs are not totally mine, but I want him to do what he feels is right. I believe in my son's honesty and ...


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