The Effect of the Successful Assertion of the State Secrets Privilege in a Civil Lawsuit in Which the Government Is Not a Party: When, If Ever, Should the Defendant Shoulder the Burden of the Government’s Successful Privilege Claim?

29 Pages Posted: 9 May 2015 Last revised: 5 Jun 2015

See all articles by Edward J. Imwinkelried

Edward J. Imwinkelried

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: May 7, 2015


It is well-settled that the national government has an evidentiary privilege protecting state and military secrets. The privilege protects information that can be vital to the country’s safety and survival. It was expectable that the national government would begin asserting the privilege more frequently after 9/11. The government has invoked the privilege in several prosecutions of alleged terrorists.

However, the privilege also applies in civil actions. Indeed, the government may assert the privilege in a civil action even when the government is not joined as a party. The government has the right to intervene for the purpose of claiming the privilege. In recent years, the government has asserted the privilege in a large number of civil actions, including cases involving high technology companies, private security firms, infrastructure contractors, and weapons and aircraft manufacturers.

When the government successfully asserts the privilege in a civil action in which it is not a party, the question naturally arises: What is the procedural effect of the assertion? As the quotations at the beginning of this article indicate, the generalization has been that the only effects are that the privileged information becomes unavailable as evidence and that the case can proceed without the privileged evidence. However, Part I of this article demonstrates that that generalization is a gross over-simplification. In many cases, the court terminates the litigation, resulting in a peremptory victory for the defense. The plaintiff loses the opportunity to conduct discovery or take the case to trial.

Part II of this article presents a critical evaluation of the current state of the law. The primary thrust of Part II is that at least in one set of circumstances, the plaintiff ought to be permitted to proceed – namely, when (1) the plaintiff has sufficient unprivileged evidence to present a prima facie case, (2) proceeding would not raise a significant risk of the inadvertent revelation of privileged information, (3) the privilege claim affects the defense’s ability to develop an affirmative defense, and (4) the defendant has a closer relationship to the government than the plaintiff. A factual proposition is considered an affirmative defense because the law assigns the defendant the burdens of pleading, production, and proof on the proposition. The allocation of these burdens to the defendant can be outcome determinative. If there were sufficiently weighty policies to assign those burdens to the defendant, in these circumstances the defendant should also bear the burden of the loss of the privileged evidence. The government’s privilege claim neither extinguishes nor diminishes the policies that originally warranted assigning the burdens to the defense. Part II adds that there is a colorable argument that the plaintiff should also be permitted to proceed when the government claim interferes with the defendant’s ability to present a simple defense, merely negating an element of the plaintiff’s case.

Part II emphasizes that although the plaintiff should be permitted to proceed in these exceptional cases, the court should not grant the plaintiff the sort of peremptory victory that the defense usually obtains after the government’s claim. Even when the plaintiff proceeds, it is not a foregone conclusion that there will be a plaintiff’s verdict. A key plaintiff’s witness may become unavailable for trial, a nervous witness might forget information critical to the plaintiff’s case, or the witness may display negative demeanor that prompts the jury to disbelieve the witness’s testimony. Hence, the judge should neither enter summary judgment for the plaintiff nor direct a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor. However, the thesis of this article is that in these cases the law should be reformed to accord the plaintiff an opportunity to proceed and fairly win a verdict.

Suggested Citation

Imwinkelried, Edward J., The Effect of the Successful Assertion of the State Secrets Privilege in a Civil Lawsuit in Which the Government Is Not a Party: When, If Ever, Should the Defendant Shoulder the Burden of the Government’s Successful Privilege Claim? (May 7, 2015). Wyoming Law Review, Forthcoming, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 428, Available at SSRN: or

Edward J. Imwinkelried (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

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