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Justices, 6-3, Sidestep Ruling on Padilla Case

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/03/us/03cnd-scotus.html?_r=1&oref=slogin Justices, 6-3, Sidestep Ruling on Padilla Case By DAVID STOUT Published: April 3, 2006
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 3, 2006
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      Justices, 6-3, Sidestep Ruling on Padilla Case

      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
      another day.
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