Monday, April 03, 2006

THE SUPREME COURT, IN A 6-3 VOTE TODAY, decided not to decide whether the Bush administration had the legal right to hold "enemy combatants" in the "war on terror" in indefinite detention without charges or other basic constitutional rights. They did this by declining to hear arguments in the Jose Padilla case.

Six justices were apparently persuaded, at least for the time being, that Mr. Padilla's appeal is moot, since he was transferred from military custody to a civilian jail several months ago and is to go on trial. The federal government indicted him last fall on terrorism charges that could bring him a sentence of life in prison if he is convicted.

The administration had argued that since Mr. Padilla was going to get a trial, there was no need for the Supreme Court to rule on his appeal of a lower court order upholding the administration's authority to keep him in open-ended military detention as an enemy combatant.

The six justices who agreed today to defer consideration of the finding of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The Bush administration's entire reason for deciding to take Padilla out of the military brig and give him a trial in a civilian court was to prevent that larger issue of arbitrary, indefinite detentions from being resolved. The fear, of course, is that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of the Bill of Rights.

So Roberts, Stevens, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito gave the White House what it wanted -- but only in part. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog explains:

The decision was a victory for the Bush Administration in one significant sense: by not finding the case to be moot, the Court leaves intact a sweeping Fourth Circuit Court decision upholding the president's wartime power to seize an American inside the U.S. and detain him or her as a terrorist enemy, without charges and -- for an extended period -- without a lawyer. The Court, of course, took no position on whether that was the right result, since it denied review. The Second Circuit Court, at an earlier stage of Padilla's own case, had ruled just the opposite of the Fourth Circuit, denying the president's power to seize him in the U.S. and hold him. That ruling, though, no longer stands as a precedent, since the Supreme Court earlier shifted Padilla's case from the Second to the Fourth Circuit.

The Administration was so eager to have the case out of the Supreme Court that it was willing to let the Fourth Circuit decision be erased, which would have been the result of a dismissal of the appeal on mootness grounds.

The victory for the government was not an unqualified one, however. The Court implied that Padilla has a legitimate concern that the government -- which repeatedly changed its handling of his status -- may again return him to military custody; it said that his case raised major issues -- including the role of the courts in dealing with presidential power, and it told all courts to stand ready to react quickly if the government again shifted Padilla's status or custody, in order to protect the writ of habeas corpus.. It even indicated that he would have a right to pursue a new appeal solely in the Supreme Court if his status were to change again. None of those comments would seem to be welcome to the Administration.

Kevin Drum is not inclined to see a silver lining; he called today's ruling "a disgrace" -- because of the indifference it implies about the Justice Department's toying with the law to keep Padilla from getting his day in the Supreme Court.

Aside from the substantive issues at stake, the trial record made it crystal clear that the Bush administration has been playing games with Padilla solely for the purpose of creating legal technicalities that would prevent the Supreme Court from hearing his case. Even if the court doesn't care about Padilla, they sure ought to care about the executive branch playing transparently disingenuous games to flout the authority of the judicial branch.

Just another example of this administration's willingness to manipulate, bend, and break the law to get the outcomes it wants.

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