WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Monday to be drawn into a dispute over President Bush's power to detain American terror suspects and deny them traditional legal rights.
It would have been unusual for the court to take the case of "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla (search) now, because a federal appeals court has not yet ruled on the issue. Arguments are scheduled for July 19 at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
A year ago, the court ruled the Bush administration was out of line by locking up foreign terrorist suspects at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, without access to lawyers and courts.
But justices declined to address a separate issue: whether American citizens arrested on U.S. soil can be designated "enemy combatants" and held without trial.
Padilla has been in custody since 2002 when he was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (search) after returning from Pakistan. The government views him as a militant who planned attacks on the United States, including with a dirty bomb radiological device, and has said he received weapons and explosives training from members of Al Qaeda.
A federal judge sided with Padilla and ruled that an endorsement of indefinite detentions would be a "betrayal of this nation's commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties."
Solicitor General Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, said the lower court ruling "marks a substantial judicial intrusion into the core presidential function of determining how best to ensure the nation's security."
Padilla's lawyers had wanted to jump over the appeals court and have the Supreme Court intervene.
"Delay increases the chance that Padilla could be faced with an unconstitutionally coerced choice — for example, whether to plead guilty to a crime or to give up other rights in order to avoid further months of detention as an enemy combatant," his lawyers told justices in a filing.
The court is already familiar with Padilla's case, which they debated last fall but then threw out on grounds that Padilla's lawsuit had been filed in the wrong jurisdiction.
The latest round comes from South Carolina, where Padilla is being held in a Navy brig. Officials contend Padilla received weapons and explosives training from members of Al Qaeda, and planned an attack with a "dirty bomb" radiological device.
Padilla, a New York-born convert to Islam, was one of just two U.S. citizens held as enemy combatants, a designation that allows indefinite detention without charges for Al Qaeda suspects and their associates.
The other one, Yaser Esam Hamdi (search), was released last fall after winning a Supreme Court appeal. The justices said Hamdi, a U.S.-born suspected Taliban foot soldier captured in Afghanistan, could use American courts to argue that he was being held illegally.
The Monday case is Padilla v. Commander C.T. Hanft, 04-1342.