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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 5, 2006

High court underlines need for fair treatment

This time, the Bush administration escaped the scrutiny of the Supreme Court over its treatment of an American initially held without charges in connection with the 9/11 terror investigation. But the court's narrow decision not to hear Jose Padilla's case is not the go-ahead for the government's conduct in these cases.

Far from it. Embedded in this week's majority opinion from the justices is a crucial message: Don't play fast and loose with the rights of a suspect in a criminal case.

Every American should hope that the government takes this warning about fundamental rights seriously.

Padilla is clearly a case study on this issue.

He was arrested in May 2002 and held as a material witness on the warrant issued as a result of the 9/11 attacks. A month later, just as the courts were to review his detention without charges, the Bush administration shifted him to a military brig under suspicion of being an "enemy combatant."

Undeterred by a 2004 ruling in a similar case (Rumsfeld v. Hamdi) that upheld individual rights to due process, the government failed to file charges in the Padilla case until November. Padilla was then indicted on charges he "conspired to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas."

None of the original claims the government made at the outset were part of the indictment, which suggests that the basis of his detention was anything but rock-solid.

As one federal judge observed, the case leaves the impression "that Padilla may have been held for these years, even if justifiably, by mistake."

In January, the administration moved Padilla to a civilian court jurisdiction, rendering the federal case moot.

But Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, correctly underscored the need for a swift resolution of the case and warned of future court intervention if Padilla's status changes again.

The justices shouldn't have to intervene. The Bush administration should recognize the writing on the wall and rethink how it's waging the war on terror when it comes to individual rights of Americans. It should be noted that Chief Justice John Roberts, Bush's own appointee, was part of the majority opinion.

It's encouraging to see the courts are standing ready to reinforce Americans' fundamental rights to due process, and that these rights remain paramount, even in these dangerous times.