The government should not have kept the public out of immigration hearings for a founder of an Islamic charity that was shut down as part of the government's terrorism investigation, a federal judge has ruled.

In a ruling released Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds called the closed hearings unconstitutional, said Wendy Wagenheim, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. The ACLU represented The Detroit News, the weekly Metro Times and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, in the case.

Edmunds heard arguments March 26 from the three sets of plaintiffs about their lawsuits to open Rabih Haddad's hearings, as well as lawyers for the government, which wants Haddad's hearings to remain closed.

The lawsuits are part of legal efforts, including a suit in New Jersey, to open secret court hearings and chip away at secrecy surrounding detentions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This clearly will have an effect nationwide," Wagenheim said. "It's certainly a victory for the First Amendment."

The ACLU lawsuit named Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy as defendants. Creppy issued a Sept. 21 memorandum instructing judges to close hearings involving detainees whose cases have been designated as of "special interest" to the FBI.

The ACLU is challenging that sweeping effort, not the government's ability to request that certain hearings be closed. Government lawyers assert that the Creppy directive doesn't infringe upon due process rights.

Justice Department officials were not immediately available for comment.

Haddad, a native and citizen of Lebanon who co-founded the Global Relief Foundation, has been in government custody since Dec. 14. The Ann Arbor resident was arrested the same day federal agents raided his group's Bridgeview, Ill., offices.

Since being detained on a visa violation, Haddad had three closed hearings in immigration court in Detroit before he was transferred to Chicago in January. Government officials have not explained why secrecy is necessary.

Haddad's next hearing was sent for April 10.

The government is trying to deport Haddad, his wife, Salma al-Rushaid, and three of their four children. The INS says al-Rushaid, like her husband, overstayed her visa.

The Detroit Free Press and The Ann Arbor News in their lawsuit asked the court to require the government to give "access to all future proceedings related to Haddad." They also want transcripts of the earlier hearings and copies of all documents related to the case.

It was not clear what the plaintiffs would receive as a result of Edmunds' ruling. The details of the ruling were not immediately available.

Like the ACLU, the newspapers have taken no legal position on Haddad's immigration case, lawyers said.