WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to let the military transfer accused "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla to Miami to face criminal charges in what was at least a temporary victory for the Bush administration.
The justices overruled a lower court, which had attempted to block the transfer as part of a rebuke to the White House.
The high court said it would decide later whether to consider the inmate's argument that President Bush overstepped his authority by ordering Padilla's indefinite detention in 2002. It granted the Bush administration's request for a transfer in a one-page order and said Padilla's broader appeal would be considered "in due course."
"That's fine. It's great," said Donna Newman, one of Padilla's lawyers. "Both things are good. I don't think it's a bad day for us."
Padilla's jailing as an enemy combatant for the past 3 1/2 years has been the subject of multiple court rulings and criticism by civil rights groups.
The former Chicago gang member was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and put in military custody, where he was held without charges and traditional legal rights.
The Supreme Court had been asked to use Padilla's case to define the scope of a president's power over American citizens taken into custody on U.S. soil. The justices had been expected to agree to hear his appeal, but shortly before word was to come, the government brought criminal charges against him in Florida and then argued that the appeal was moot.
The criminal charges do not involve allegations that had been made by the administration since 2002 — that Padilla was part of an Al Qaeda-backed plot to blow up apartment buildings. Instead, a grand jury charged Padilla with being part of a North American terrorism cell that raised funds and recruited fighters to wage violent jihad outside the United States.
A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., refused last month to allow the transfer of Padilla from military custody in South Carolina to civilian custody. The court criticized the Bush administration's use of one set of facts before the courts to justify Padilla's military detention without charges and another to persuade a grand jury in Miami to indict him on the terrorism-related charges.
In the appeals court decision, Judge J. Michael Luttig warned the administration that it was risking its credibility with the courts by changing tactics in what could be interpreted as an effort to avoid judicial scrutiny.
Solicitor General Paul Clement, the administration's Supreme Court lawyer, had told the justices that that the appeals court denial of the transfer was "an unwarranted attack on the exercise of executive discretion."
The 4th Circuit had backed the Bush administration last year, with a broad ruling that said the president could hold citizens indefinitely without charges on U.S. soil as part of the war on terrorism.
Luttig, who was named to the bench by President Bush's father, said last month that the administration's actions left the impression that Padilla had been held in military custody "by mistake," and that such government tactics could prove costly.
"These impressions have been left, we fear, at what may ultimately prove to be a substantial cost to the government's credibility before the courts," he wrote.
Padilla's lawyers had asked the court to delay his transfer until the justices decided whether to review his appeal.