Monday, June 13, 2005

High Court Passes on Combatants
High Court Passes on Combatants

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court refused Monday to be drawn into a dispute over President Bush's power to detain American terror suspects and deny them traditional legal rights.

It would have been unusual for the court to take the case of "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla now, because a federal appeals court has not yet ruled on the issue. Arguments are scheduled for July 19 at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

A year ago, the court ruled the Bush administration was out of line by locking up foreign terrorist suspects at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without access to lawyers and courts.

But justices declined to address a separate issue: whether American citizens arrested on U.S. soil can be designated "enemy combatants" and held without trial.

Padilla has been in custody since 2002 when he was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after returning from Pakistan. The government views him as a militant who planned attacks on the United States, including with a dirty bomb radiological device, and has said he received weapons and explosives training from members of al-Qaeda.

A federal judge sided with Padilla and ruled that an endorsement of indefinite detentions would be a "betrayal of this nation's commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties."

Solicitor General Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, said the lower court ruling "marks a substantial judicial intrusion into the core presidential function of determining how best to ensure the nation's security."

Padilla's lawyers had wanted to jump over the appeals court and have the Supreme Court intervene.

"Delay increases the chance that Padilla could be faced with an unconstitutionally coerced choice — for example, whether to plead guilty to a crime or to give up other rights in order to avoid further months of detention as an enemy combatant," his lawyers told justices in a filing.

The court is already familiar with Padilla's case, which they debated last fall but then threw out on grounds that Padilla's lawsuit had been filed in the wrong jurisdiction.

The latest round comes from South Carolina, where Padilla is being held in a Navy brig. Officials contend Padilla received weapons and explosives training from members of al-Qaeda, and planned an attack with a "dirty bomb" radiological device.

Padilla, a New York-born convert to Islam, was one of just two U.S. citizens held as enemy combatants, a designation that allows indefinite detention without charges for al-Qaeda suspects and their associates.

The other one, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was released last fall after winning a Supreme Court appeal. The justices said Hamdi, a U.S.-born suspected Taliban foot soldier captured in Afghanistan, could use American courts to argue that he was being held illegally.

The Monday case is Padilla v. Commander C.T. Hanft, 04-1342.

In other business, the court:

• Overturned the conviction of a black death row inmate who said Texas prosecutors unfairly stacked his jury with whites, issuing a harsh rebuke to the state that executes more people than any other. The 6-3 ruling Monday ordered a new trial for Thomas Miller-El, who challenged his conviction for the 1985 murder of a 25-year-old Dallas motel clerk. It was the second time justices reviewed the case after a lower court refused to reconsider Miller-El's claims.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was wrong to reaffirm the conviction by a state court in light of the strong evidence of prejudice during jury selection, justices said. The state court's conclusion that the prosecutors' strikes of people from the jury pool was "not racially determined is shown up as wrong to a clear and convincing degree; the state court's conclusion was unreasonable as well as erroneous," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that Texas prosecutors had offered enough evidence that exclusions were made for reasons other than race. "In view of the evidence actually presented to the Texas courts, their conclusion that the state did not discriminate was eminently reasonable," Thomas wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justices last year issued stinging reversals in three cases involving Texas death penalty convictions on various grounds, a striking number for a conservative-leaning court that generally favors capital punishment. All the cases involved black defendants.

• Ruled drug companies have freedom under the Food and Drug Administration rules to ignore their rival's patents when starting research on competing medications. The unanimous decision sets aside a lower court ruling for patent holder Integra LifeSciences Holdings Corp. It means that big drug companies will have more flexibility to start experimenting with potential therapies so long as they cannot feasibly be marketed until after a competitor's patent expires.

• Turned away several appeals from broadcast and newspaper groups that sought to restore new government rules easing restrictions on media ownership. Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling that threw out the Federal Communications Commission regulations as unjustified.