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Supreme Court upholds secret detentions

The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether the government properly withheld names and other details about hundreds of foreigners detained in the months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether the government properly withheld names and other details about hundreds of foreigners detained in the months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The high court turned down a request to review the secrecy surrounding detainees, nearly all Arabs or Muslims, who were picked up in the United States immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Many if not most of the more than 700 detainees at issue in the case have since been deported. Some picked up after Sept. 11 were charged with crimes, and others were held as material witnesses. Only Zacarias Moussaoui, who was detained before the Sept. 11 attacks, is being prosecuted in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Washington study center critical of the Bush administration responses after Sept. 11 sued to learn names and other basic information about the detainees. The appeal raises constitutional questions under the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and legal questions under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Twenty-three news organizations and media groups, including the Associated Press, joined in asking the high court to hear the case.

“It is the responsibility of courts, and especially this court, to provide meaningful judicial review when the government invokes national security to justify unprecedented secrecy in exercising its awesome power to arrest and detain hundreds of people,” lawyers for the Center for National Security Studies argued in a court filing.

‘Prone to overreact’
“History shows that, in times of crisis and fear, executive officials are prone to overreact, especially in their treatment of minorities in their midst,” the appeal said.

The government grabbed people on thin suspicion, then moved to deport detainees who had no demonstrated link to terrorism but who had violated civil immigration laws, lawyers for the Center for National Security Studies told the court.

The government sealed immigration records and omitted detainees’ names from jail rosters, among other tactics, to make sure that details of hundreds of arrests remained secret, the lawyers said.

The high court’s decision not to review the case represents a victory for the Bush administration. Last week, the high court disappointed the administration by taking on a higher-profile terrorism case involving the rights of an American citizen captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The Bush administration had argued strongly that it has authority to hold the man, Yaser Esam Hamdi, indefinitely and without charges in a military prison.

The case is the Center for National Security Studies v. Justice Department.

Other actions
In other actions Monday, the court:

  • Refused to hear an appeal of Colorado’s grand jury secrecy rules, dealing the former housekeeper for JonBenet Ramsey’s family a defeat.

Justices, without comment, refused to consider Linda Hoffmann-Pugh’s free-speech-based appeal.

Hoffmann-Pugh worked for John and Patsy Ramsey when their 6-year-old daughter was found strangled and beaten in the basement of their Boulder, Colo., home on Dec. 26, 1996.

She testified before a grand jury that ended its term in 1999 without issuing an indictment, but is prohibited from disclosing details of the testimony.

She has written a book, “The Death of an Innocent.” But her attorney told the court that the secrecy rules have interfered with the publishing of it.

  • Rejected an appeal from St. Louis University in a case involving a polio vaccine. The university was ordered in 1991 to pay $16 million to the family of a baby who contracted polio and was paralyzed after receiving vaccine. The university tried to recover the money from the government and American Cynamid Co., the vaccine maker. The university claimed the vaccine Orimune, which was given to Danny Callahan, violated government regulations. The case is St. Louis University v. American Cynamid Co., 03-557.
  • Declined to consider what states can do to give consumers more options for local telephone service. Justices rejected appeals from MCI and Wisconsin regulators over a plan in that state to speed up competition for phone service. An appeals court ruled that federal law blocked states from requiring the former Bells to set up rate plans for companies like MCI that want to compete. The cases are WorldCom Inc. v. Wisconsin Bell, Inc., 03-603, and Bie v. Wisconsin Bell, 03-656.
  • Refused to consider protecting Allstate Insurance Co. from claims for damage from the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake. The company had challenged a law that allowed homeowners to refile claims from the quake that claimed more than 70 lives. The case is Allstate Insurance Co. v. Noah, 03-341.
  • Refused to consider when the government must pay legal fees in environmental cases settled out of court. The Bush administration challenged an appeals court ruling that granted the Sierra Club fees in a dispute over clean air regulations. The case is Environmental Protection Agency v. Sierra Club, 03-509.
  • Declined to hear an appeal from Alcan Aluminum Corp., which was ordered to pay $13.6 million for cleanup of hazardous waste sites in central New York. The case is Alcan Aluminum Corp. v. United States, 03-433.