The most remarkable thing about the D.C. Circuit’s recent opinion in Safari International Club v. Jewell is that there was any opinion at all. Its blackletter law holdings on standing, final agency action, and exhaustion are the type often found in unpublished decisions. Yet the case is interesting for two reasons. The first is the glimpse it gives into an agency’s willingness to make borderline frivolous procedural arguments to evade substantive judicial review. And the second is the unqualified rejection a panel of judges not known for their skepticism of the administrative state gave to them. As a result, the case is simultaneously distressing and refreshing. It is both a reminder of how procedural complexity can empower bureaucrats and of how panel composition is not necessarily outcome‑determinative in administrative law.
In Safari Club, two organizations that represent big game trophy hunters challenged the Department of the Interior’s decision to reverse longstanding precedent and suspend, for 2014, the issuance of permits needed to repatriate elephant trophies from Tanzania. Instead of responding to the merits of the challenge, the Department argued that the organizations lacked standing, that its permitting decision was not final agency action, and that the organizations had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.
The Department offered three standing arguments. The first turned on whether applying for repatriation permits would have been futile. Despite a Department memorandum stating that such applications “will be denied,” it told the court that the hunters should have applied anyway on the off chance that it might have changed its mind. Agencies, however, can always change course. As the court put it, the possibility of a change of heart “hardly casts doubt” on the futility of applying for a permit.
The Department’s second standing argument was that any harm to hunters was speculative because, after all, some may be bad shots. In the Department’s view, hunters with bad aim might fail to kill any elephants and therefore be left with nothing to repatriate after their trip. But as the court recognized, trophy hunters are injured by not being able to secure permits before spending upwards of $200,000 on Tanzanian trophy hunts.
The Department next pulled the mootness doctrine out of its bag of tricks. The case was moot, said the Department, because its permitting decision applied only to 2014 and 2014 ended about two years ago. But while the Department makes new repatriation permitting decisions each year, courts typically do not resolve challenges to them before the start of the next calendar year. In other words, challenges to repatriation permitting decisions are not moot under standard doctrine because they are “capable of repetition, yet evading review.” But the Department told the court that the standard rule did not apply here because a hunter could have challenged its permitting decision if it had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2014 to go on a hunt in Tanzania (without a permit), shot an elephant, and attempted to repatriate it in 2015. Unsurprisingly, the court was not moved.
Final agency action was next. The Department said that its repatriation decision was merely a tentative conclusion. But the Department made the decision after a thorough examination of scientific studies and official documents from the Tanzanian government. In other words, the decision did not result from the type of analysis that leads to tentative conclusions. Further, the Department itself had explained that it had “prohibit[ed] import of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Tanzania.” The court thought that sounded rather final.
Lastly, the Department hung its hat on the exhaustion doctrine. The Department argued that the hunters had erred by not asking for “reconsideration” of its repatriation decision. But the Department’s own regulations limit reconsideration to permit applicants, which the hunters never could have been. In the court’s blunt assessment, the Department’s exhaustion argument was “absurd.”
No doubt there are reasonable policy arguments on both sides concerning the relationship between conservation and trophy hunting in Tanzania. But Safari Club paints a depressing portrait of a government agency willing to do or say anything to thwart meaningful judicial review of its preferred policy outcome. Americans do not finance the administrative state so it can advance “absurd” procedural arguments before federal courts. If a minor case like Safari Club is remembered at all, it should be because it reminds agencies that, at least sometimes, they will have to defend their exercise of administrative power on its legal merits.
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Derek Lyons is a senior associate at Boyden Gray & Associates.