Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 15 (2002)

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Cite as: 536 U. S. 403 (2002)

Opinion of the Court

The particular facts of this case underscore the need for care on the part of the plaintiff in identifying, and by the court in determining, the claim for relief underlying the access-to-courts plea. The action alleged on the part of all the Government defendants (the State Department and NSC defendants sued for denial of access and the CIA defendants who would have been timely sued on the underlying claim but for the denial) was apparently taken in the conduct of foreign relations by the National Government. Thus, if there is to be judicial enquiry, it will raise concerns for the separation of powers in trenching on matters committed to the other branches. See Department of Navy v. Egan, 484 U. S. 518, 529 (1988) (" '[F]oreign policy [is] the province and responsibility of the Executive' "); Chicago & Southern Air Lines, Inc. v. Waterman S. S. Corp., 333 U. S. 103, 111 (1948) ("[T]he very nature of executive decisions as to foreign policy is political, not judicial"). Since the need to resolve such constitutional issues ought to be avoided where possible, cf. Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker, 535 U. S. 125, 134-135 (2002); Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U. S. 288, 345-348 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring), the trial court should be in a position as soon as possible in the litigation to know whether a potential constitutional ruling may be obviated because the allegations of denied access fail to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

In sum, the right of a defendant in a backward-looking access suit to obtain early dismissal of a hopelessly incomplete claim for relief coincides in this case with the obligation of the Judicial Branch to avoid deciding constitutional issues needlessly. For the sake of each, the complaint should state the underlying claim in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a),15 just as if it were being independently pursued, and a like plain statement should describe any rem-15 "A pleading which sets forth a claim for relief . . . shall contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief . . . ."


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