A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft can't face a lawsuit from a former Sept. 11 detainee who argued they were responsible for his restrictive confinement because of his religious beliefs.
The court on Monday overturned a lower court decision that let Javaid Iqbal's lawsuit against the high-ranking officials proceed.
Iqbal is a Pakistani Muslim who spent nearly six months in solitary confinement in New York in 2002. He had argued that while Ashcroft and Mueller did not single him out for mistreatment, they were responsible for a policy of confining detainees in highly restrictive conditions because of their religious beliefs or race.
But the government argued that there was nothing linking Mueller and Ashcroft to the abuses that happened to Iqbal at a Brooklyn, N.Y., prison's Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit, and the court agreed.
"The complaint does not show or even intimate, that petitioners purposefully housed detainees in the ADMAX SHU due to their race, religion or national origin," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. "All it plausibly suggests is that the nation's top law enforcement officers, in the aftermath of a devastating attack, sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available until the suspects could be cleared of terrorist activity."
Had the court ruled the other way, it would have led to hundreds of similar suits.
The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had said the lawsuit could proceed.
The court's liberal justices — David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens — dissented from the court's opinion.
"There is no principled basis for the majority's disregard of the allegations linking Ashcroft and Mueller to their subordinates' discrimination," Souter wrote.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts. Iqbal could have a case against others, Kennedy said.
His "account of his prison ordeal could, if proved, demonstrate unconstitutional misconduct by some governmental actors," Kennedy said. "But the allegations and pleadings with respect to these actors are not before us here."
Iqbal was arrested at his Long Island home on Nov. 2, 2001, and charged with nonviolent federal crimes unrelated to terrorism. Two months later, he was moved to a holding facility in Brooklyn, where he was in solitary confinement for more than 150 days without a hearing, his lawsuit alleges.
He said he was subjected to physical and verbal abuse, including unnecessary strip searches. On the day he entered solitary confinement, he says, he was thrown against a wall, kicked in the stomach, punched in the face and dragged across a floor by federal prison officers.
Cleared of terror, then deported
He was cleared of any involvement in terrorism and was deported in January 2003 after pleading guilty to fraud and being sentenced to a year and four months in prison.
The appeals court said it recognized the gravity of the situation confronting government investigators after the 2001 terrorist attacks and agreed that some forms of government action that otherwise would not be proper are permitted in emergencies.
But it said most of the rights cited in the lawsuit "do not vary with surrounding circumstances, such as the right not to be subjected to needlessly harsh conditions of confinement, the right to be free from the use of excessive force and the right not to be subjected to ethnic or religious discrimination."
A 2003 Justice Department report found "significant problems" with the treatment of post-Sept. 11 detainees at the facility in Brooklyn, including physical abuse and mistreatment.
The case is Ashcroft and Mueller v. Iqbal, 07-1015.