Justices, 6-3, Sidestep Ruling on Padilla Case
Justices, 6-3, Sidestep Ruling on Padilla Case
By DAVID STOUT
Published: April 3, 2006
WASHINGTON, April 3 A sharply split Supreme Court
today rejected an appeal from the terrorism suspect
Jose Padilla, leaving undecided for now deeper
questions about the Bush administration's handling of
detainees since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
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
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.
But there were hints of an internal struggle among the
justices. For one thing, several justices took the
somewhat unusual step of issuing opinions related to
the court's order not to take a case. More commonly,
when refusing to take a case, the court simply issues
an order without comment.
The three justices who said the Supreme Court should
have taken the case were Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H.
Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justice Ginsburg said the underlying issues are "of
profound importance to the nation," and that it was
high time the court ruled on the executive branch's
power to hold a United States citizen after declaring
him an "enemy combatant."
"Although the government has recently lodged charges
against Padilla in a civilian court, nothing prevents
the executive from returning to the road it earlier
constructed and defended," Justice Ginsburg wrote.
The case the court declined to hear is titled Padilla
v. Hanft, No. 05-533. (C.T. Hanft is listed as the
commander of the Navy brig at Charleston, S.C.)
Even in voting not to hear the case, at least for now,
Justice Kennedy wrote, for himself, the chief justice
and Justice Stevens, "In light of the previous changes
in his custody status and the fact that nearly four
years have passed since he was first detained,
Padilla, it must be acknowledged, has a continuing
concern that his status might be altered again."
"In the court of its supervision over Padilla's
custody and trial, the district court will be obliged
to afford him the protection, including the right to a
speedy trial, guaranteed to all federal criminal
defendants," Justice Kennedy wrote on behalf of
himself and his two colleagues.
And even though Justice Stevens found today that the
Padilla case need not be considered now, he declared
at an earlier stage in the case that "at stake in this
case is nothing less than the essence of a free
An American citizen and a former Chicago gang member,
Mr. Padilla was arrested in May 2002 when he arrived
at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. He was
soon declared an "enemy combatant," and then-Attorney
General John Ashcroft announced that he had planned to
detonate a radioactive bomb in the United States.
The administration long resisted charging Mr. Padilla
in a civilian court, preferring to hold him without
charges in the Navy brig. Finally, last fall, the
administration did bring charges, accusing him of
being part of a terrorist cell. But those charges
contained no mention of a radioactive-bomb plot.
The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, a
Richmond-based tribunal widely regarded as the most
conservative of the circuits, ruled last September
that President Bush had the authority to detain as an
enemy combatant an American citizen who fought the
United States on foreign soil. (The Pentagon has
asserted that Mr. Padilla fought alongside Al Qaeda
members in Afghanistan.)
But the Fourth Circuit was still critical of the
administration, voicing its suspicion that it had
decided to move Mr. Padilla to civilian custody to
evade a Supreme Court ruling on the president's
authority in incarcerating "enemy combatants."
The Supreme Court sidestepped a comprehensive ruling
on government authority in January, when it granted
the administration's request to transfer Mr. Padilla
to civilian custody. Today's refusal by the justices
to take Mr. Padilla's case means that the questions
about government authority will have to wait for still