WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether the Constitution forbids the Bush administration from holding U.S. citizens indefinitely and without access to lawyers or courts when they are suspected of being "enemy combatants."
The justices will consider the case of Jose Padilla (search), an American citizen, former Chicago gang member and convert to Islam who was arrested in his home city after a trip to Pakistan. The government alleges he was part of a plot to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in the United States.
The Padilla case is a companion to another terrorism case the court was already set to hear this spring. Together, the Yaser Esam Hamdi (search) and Padilla cases will allow the high court to take its most comprehensive look so far at the constitutional and legal rights of Americans caught up in the global war on terror.
Lawyers for both men claim their treatment is unconstitutional. Hearing the cases together will simultaneously address the rights of U.S. citizens captured abroad and at home.
At issue is the president's claim of authority to protect the nation and pursue terrorists unfettered by many traditional legal obligations -- and outside previous precedents for government conduct in wartime.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear both cases in late April, with a ruling due by summer.
Separately, the court will hear a challenge this spring from foreign-born terror suspects held in open-ended custody at the military's prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That case asks whether those more than 650 prisoners may challenge their detention and treatment in U.S. courts.
Critics in the United States and abroad have grumbled that the prolonged detentions violate basic human rights and international agreements. A ruling in the Guantanamo case is also expected by summer.
The Padilla and Hamdi cases hit closer to home for most Americans.
Padilla was arrested on U.S. soil, and the initial allegations against him were aired in the civilian criminal court system. He was later whisked to a military prison in South Carolina, where he was off-limits to his lawyer or other outsiders for nearly two years.
"I think the stakes are very high," Andrew Patel, one of Padilla's attorneys, said Friday. "Because the president said `I think you're a bad man,' he's been in jail for two years. He hasn't had a chance to defend himself. That's not the way we do things in this country, when we're at war or when we're at peace."
Earlier this month, the Bush administration said Padilla could now see his lawyers, although the government still contends it has no legal obligation to allow such a meeting.
The government listened in on a recent, similar meeting between Hamdi and a defense lawyer.
Hamdi is a suspected Taliban foot soldier captured overseas shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He was placed alongside Padilla in the same South Carolina brig after U.S. authorities verified his claim that he had been born in Louisiana of Saudi parents.
The administration claims that Padilla, Hamdi and the Guantanamo prisoners are all "enemy combatants," potential Al Qaeda (search) terrorists or their Taliban (search) protectors captured since the jetliner attacks that killed thousands in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
Padilla is closely associated with the Al Qaeda terrorist network and "represents a continuing, present and grave danger to the national security of the United States," while Hamdi is a "classic battlefield detainee," Solicitor General Theodore Olson has argued to the high court in legal papers.
A federal appeals court ruled in December that President Bush does not have the authority to declare Padilla an enemy combatant and hold him in open-ended military custody.
The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "undermines the president's vital authority as commander in chief to protect the United States against attacks launched within the nation's borders," Olson argued in asking the high court to take the case.
Unlike the Padilla case, the government has won its argument in lower courts that Hamdi may be held indefinitely without access to a lawyer or the U.S. court system.
The case is Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 03-1027.