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State v. United States Department of State

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

November 12, 2019

STATE OF WASHINGTON, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Dkt. #170, #173, and #174. Plaintiffs seek a summary determination that the federal defendants violated the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”) when they modified the United States Munitions List (“USML”) and issued a letter authorizing the on-line publication of certain computer aided design (“CAD”) data files in July 2018. They request that the Court vacate the agency action and permanently enjoin the federal defendants from removing the CAD files at issue from the USML unless and until they comply with the statutory procedural requirements.


         Since at least 2013, the federal government had taken the position that the Arms Export Control Act (“AECA”), 22 U.S.C. § 2778, authorizes restrictions on the internet publication of CAD files that allow users to create guns and their components with a 3D printer. When defendant Defense Distributed posted CAD files for various weapons on its website at the end of 2012, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”), which is part of the Department of State, notified Defense Distributed that the publication may have been unauthorized and in violation of the AECA's implementing regulations, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR”), 22 C.F.R. §§ 120-30. The DDTC explained that making the CAD files available on the internet constituted a disclosure or transfer of technical data to foreign persons and was considered an “export” subject to the AECA and ITAR. The government advised Defense Distributed to remove the files from its website and, if it believed the files were not properly subject to export control, to utilize the commodity jurisdiction (“CJ”) procedure to obtain an official determination from the DDTC.

         Defense Distributed filed a number of determination requests. When the DDTC failed to make timely rulings, Defense Distributed filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. Defense Distributed v. U.S. Dep't of State, C15-0372RP (W.D. Tex). That litigation pitted Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation on one side against the Department of State, the DDTC, and various federal employees on the other. Defense Distributed challenged the federal government's power to regulate its publication of the CAD files on the internet, arguing that the regulation subjected its gun-related speech to a system of prior restraints that was applied in an arbitrary manner in violation of Defense Distributed's First, Second, and Fifth Amendment rights. A month after the Texas litigation was filed, the DDTC determined that some, but not all, of the CAD data files Defense Distributed wanted to publish on the internet were technical data subject to the AECA and ITAR.

         Defense Distributed filed a motion for preliminary injunction in the Texas litigation to preclude the federal government from imposing prepublication approval requirements on any of its CAD files. The federal government opposed the motion, arguing that:

• “export of Defense Distributed's CAD files could cause serious harm to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests” that “warrant subjecting [the files] to ITAR's export licensing of technical data;”
• Defense Distributed's “CAD files constitute the functional equivalent of defense articles: capable, in the hands of anyone who possesses commercially available 3D printing equipment, of ‘automatically' generating a lethal firearm that can be easily modified to be virtually undetectable in metal detectors and other security equipment;”
• “The State Department is particularly concerned that [Defense Distributed's] proposed export of undetectable firearms technology could be used in an assassination, for the manufacture of spare parts by embargoed nations, terrorist groups, or guerrilla groups, or to compromise aviation security overseas in a manner specifically directed at U.S. persons;” and
• both the government and the public “have a strong interest in curbing violent regional conflicts elsewhere in the world, especially when such conflict implicates the security of the United States and the world as a whole.”

Id., Dkt. #32 at 19-20 (W.D. Tex.) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The then-Director of the Office of Defense Trade Controls Management, Lisa V. Aguirre, concluded that the unrestricted export of Defense Distributed's CAD files would result in the production of plastic firearms that are fully operable and virtually undetectable by conventional security measures, that their use to commit terrorism, piracy, assassinations, or other serious crimes would cause serious and long-lasting harm to the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States, that efforts to restrict the availability of these articles to enemies of the United States would fail, that the proliferation of weapons and related technologies would contribute to a more dangerous international environment, and that the export would undercut the domestic laws of nations that have more restrictive firearm controls and the United States' foreign relations with those nations would suffer. Id., Dkt. #32-1 at ¶ 35.

         The Honorable Robert L. Pitman denied Defense Distributed's motion for preliminary injunction, noting that Defense Distributed's avowed purpose is to facilitate “global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the three-dimensional (‘3D') printing of arms, ” and that such activities “undoubtedly increase[] the possibility of outbreak or escalation of conflict” and are of the type Congress authorized the President to regulate through the AECA. Id., Dkt. #43 at 8-9 (emphasis in original). The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that “the State Department's stated interest in preventing foreign nationals -including all manner of enemies of this country - from obtaining technical data on how to produce weapons and weapons parts” constitutes “a very strong public interest in national defense and national security.” Defense Distributed v. U.S. Dep't of State, 838 F.3d 451, 458 (5th Cir. 2016).

         In April 2018, the federal government moved to dismiss Defense Distributed's claims in the Texas litigation, reiterating that what was at stake was “the United States' ability to control the export of weapons - a system of laws and regulations that seeks to ensure that articles useful for warfare or terrorism are not shipped from the United States to other countries (or otherwise provided to foreigners) without authorization, where, beyond the reach of U.S. law, they could be used to threaten U.S. national security, U.S. foreign policy interests, or international peace and stability.” C15-0372RP, Dkt. #92 at 1 (W.D. Tex). Later that month, the parties reached a tentative settlement agreement. Pursuant to the settlement, which was not signed until July 29, 2018, the Department of State changed course, abandoning its prior regulatory and litigation positions and allowing the private defendants, Defense Distributed, the Second Amendment Foundation, and Conn Williamson, to publish on the internet CAD files for the automated production of 3D-printed weapons. The federal government specifically agreed, among other things, to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking and final rule revising the United States Munitions List (“USML”) that would allow the distribution of the CAD files, to announce a temporary modification of the USML to allow immediate distribution while the final rule was in development, and to issue a letter to Defense Distributed and other defendants advising that the CAD files are approved for public release and unlimited distribution. The federal defendants also acknowledged and agreed that the temporary modification and letter “permits any United States person . . . to access, discuss, use, reproduce, or otherwise benefit from” the CAD files. The announcement of the temporary modification and the issuance of the letter were to occur on or before July 27, 2018. No. findings of fact or other statements are provided in the settlement agreement that address, much less invalidate, the federal government's prior analysis regarding the likely impacts of publication on national security or world peace or that otherwise explain the federal government's change of position.

         On May 24, 2018, the Department of State published a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) that implicated the technical data at issue in the litigation. The NPRM proposed an amendment to the ITAR to, inter alia, remove certain Category I items (primarily small caliber weapons and their related technical data) from the USML, thereby lifting the requirement to obtain a license for their export. 83 Fed. Reg. 24, 198 (May 24, 2018). Although the NPRM did not explicitly mention 3D-printed firearms or their related technical data, approximately 12% of the comments received in response to the NPRM did, and all of them opposed lifting the license requirement. The public comment period end on July 9, 2018. The settlement agreement was made public the following day. The temporary modification was published and the letter to the private defendants was issued on July 27, 2018. The temporary modification contains an assertion that the DDTC “has determined that it is in the interest of the security and foreign policy of the United States” to immediately modify Category I of the USML to exclude the technical data at issue in the Texas litigation. Dkt. #171-2 at 2. The public comments opposing exclusion were not considered by the agency when it issued the temporary modification and letter. Dkt. #179-2 at ¶ 7.

         Three days after the temporary modification was published, eight states and the District of Columbia filed this lawsuit, alleging that the federal defendants' conduct was ultra vires and in violation of the APA and the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[1] In response to plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunctive relief, the federal defendants justified the deregulation of the CAD files (along with the delisting of other items within Category I of the USML) by pointing to a Department of Defense determination that the items “do not provide the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage” and “are already commonly available and not inherently for military end-use.” Dkt. #64-1 at 10. After an expedited hearing, the Court found that plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their APA claim insofar as the temporary modification resulted in the removal of one or more items from the USML, that plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of irreparable injury if an injunction did not issue because Defense Distributed had announced its intent to make the CAD files downloadable from its website on August 1, 2018, [2] and that the balance of hardships and the public interest tipped sharply in plaintiffs' favor. The federal defendants were enjoined from implementing or enforcing the temporary modification of the USML and/or the July 27th letter and were required to preserve the status quo ex ante as if the modification had not occurred and the letter had not been issued. Dkt. #23 and #95.

         In the context of the States' challenge to the issuance of the temporary modification and letter, the federal defendants produced and supplemented the administrative record on which the decision to issue the temporary modification and letter was based.[3] Plaintiffs now seek an order invalidating the temporary modification and letter under the APA and permanently enjoining the federal defendants from removing the computer files at issue from the USML unless and until they comply with the governing procedural requirements. The federal and private defendants oppose plaintiffs' motion and request judgment in their favor.


         A. Jurisdiction

         Both the federal and private defendants challenge the Court's jurisdiction over this matter. The federal defendants argue that the States cannot meet prudential standing requirements. The private defendants argue that the issuance of the temporary modification and letter are “committed to agency discretion by law” and not subject to judicial review under 5 U.S.C. § 701(a)(2) and 22 U.S.C. § 2278(h), that listing on the USML is a political question over which the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, and that the claims are barred by the Tucker Act.[4]

         1. Zone of Interests

         The question of standing involves both constitutional limitations imposed by Article III of the U.S. Constitution and prudential limitations imposed by the judiciary to limit the exercise of federal jurisdiction. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975); Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 751 (1984). To present a justiciable case or controversy under Article III, plaintiffs must demonstrate an “injury in fact” that is “fairly traceable” to the actions of the defendants and that will likely be redressed by a favorable decision. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). The prudential limitations are “founded in concern about the proper - and properly limited - role of the courts in a democratic society.” Warth, 422 U.S. at 498. The prudential requirement at issue here is that a plaintiff's grievance must arguably fall within the zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision on which the claim is based. See Ass'n of Data Processing Serv. Orgs., Inc. v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 153 (1970).

         The zone-of-interests test is a standing requirement of general applicability, but “the zone of interests of a statute for purposes of obtaining judicial review of administrative action under the generous review provisions of the APA” is fairly expansive. Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 163 (1997) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The test “is not meant to be especially demanding” in the APA context, and the Supreme Court applies “the test in keeping with Congress's evident intent when enacting the APA to make agency action presumptively reviewable.” Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak, 567 U.S. 209, 225 (2012) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Plaintiffs need not establish a congressional purpose to benefit them through passage of the underlying statute, they need simply have interests that relate to and are not inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute. Id. The Supreme Court has “always conspicuously included the word ‘arguably' in the test to indicate that the benefit of any doubt goes to the plaintiff.” Id.

         The AECA “was intended to authorize the President to control the import and export of defense articles and defense services in ‘furtherance of world peace and the security and foreign policy of the United States.” U.S. v. Chi Mak, 683 F.3d 1126, 1134 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 22 U.S.C. § 2778(a)(1)). In keeping with the goals of the statute, the federal government has, in the past, justified subjecting the CAD files at issue to ITAR's export licensing scheme based on their characteristics and functionality, which make them especially dangerous to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. The agency properly focused its analysis on the factors specified in the AECA and deemed it important to keep plastic, undetectable firearms out of foreign hands where they were not subject to U.S. laws and controls. The agency's focus on exports, national security, and world peace does not, however, mean that the States' domestic interests are unrelated or marginally related to the AECA's purposes. The State Department found that the firearms generated by the subject CAD files “can be easily modified to be virtually undetectable in metal detectors and other security equipment, ” could be used in assassinations or terrorist activities “specifically directed at U.S. persons, ” and could lead to violent regional conflicts that implicate the security of the United States. Defense Distributed v. U.S. Dep't of State, C15-0372RP, Dkt. #32 at 19-20 (W.D. Tex). Given that the CAD files and the resulting weapons can be transported, undetected, virtually anywhere in the world, these same impacts would likely arise within the United States even if the plastic weapons are manufactured abroad. The States' interests in curbing violence, assassinations, terrorist threats, aviation and other security breaches, and violations of gun control laws within their borders are at least marginally related to the interests protected or regulated by the AECA. The state and federal interests, while not identical, are aligned and not in any way inconsistent. Because the States' grievance arguably falls within the zone of interests protected or regulated by the AECA, there is no judicially-imposed limit on the Court's exercise of jurisdiction in this matter.

         2. Agency Discretion ...

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