WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court refused Monday to decide whether the president can detain Americans classified as "enemy combatants" indefinitely and without charges, saying the issue was now irrelevant to the case of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla.
In a 6-3 vote, the justices said that although Padilla had been held for more than three years in legal limbo in a military brig, he had now been charged with criminal conspiracy and was awaiting trial in a Florida prison. Any effort to reconsider his military detention would be "hypothetical, and to no effect at this stage," Justice Anthony Kennedy explained in an unusual written opinion concerning a refusal to hear a case. "Even if the court were to rule in Padilla's favor, his present custody status would be unchanged," Kennedy wrote.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice John Paul Stevens joined Kennedy's opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito also voted to reject Padilla's appeal.
In a separate opinion, the three remaining justices sharply disagreed with the court's decision, saying Padilla's case raised issues so profound that the court had an obligation to decide them.
"Nothing the government has yet done purports to retract the assertion of executive power Padilla protests," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters, who included Justices David Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.
Although the government has charged Padilla, she said, nothing prevents President Bush from returning him to military custody or reclassifying him as a combatant.
Kennedy warned that if that were to happen, the courts could—and should—"act promptly" to preserve Padilla's rights.
The court's split on the issue was notable, but it doesn't necessarily reflect how it might decide the citizen-detention issue should it come before them later. It's a procedural ruling, not a substantive one, although the net effect is a nominal win for the Bush administration.
In other instances, including an earlier case involving Padilla, a majority of the court has expressed uneasiness with many of the Bush administration's detention policies.
Monday's decision also offers few obvious clues as to how the justices will resolve another pending terrorism case, involving military tribunals for foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Several justices expressed sharp doubt during oral arguments last week on the Guantanamo case that the ad hoc proceedings were within constitutional bounds, but the issue in Padilla's case was fundamentally different.
Monday's ruling is a simple acknowledgement by the justices that they need not address every question in the war on terrorism, just the ones that are immediately at issue.
Padilla's saga is a key test not only of the balance between presidential wartime powers and individual rights but also of the balance among the three branches of government. Monday's ruling highlights the deference with which the justices are approaching the separation-of-powers issues.
Monday's action marks the second time that Padilla has struck out on procedural grounds at the Supreme Court. In 2004, the justices ruled that he had filed the original challenge to his detention in the wrong court, without saying whether his captivity was justified.
Authorities picked up Padilla at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in 2002 on suspicion that he had been part of a dirty-bomb plot. He was a former Chicago gang member and an Islamic convert who, according to the government, had spent time with al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan.
Padilla contended from the beginning that he either should be charged or let go, and that the president's decision to classify him as an "enemy combatant" with no legal rights violated the Constitution.
After the Supreme Court rejected his first appeal on jurisdictional grounds, he refiled in the proper court. But while his case was pending, the Bush administration changed Padilla's status and added his name to an existing conspiracy indictment in Florida, which charges several suspected al-Qaida operatives.
Those charges are unrelated to the dirty-bomb allegations that led to Padilla's apprehension.
The timing of the charges invited speculation that the administration was changing its game plan at mid-quarter to avoid a judicial rebuke.
The move angered at least one lower court, which said it made Padilla's military detention look like a mistake. The Supreme Court permitted the government's switch earlier this year, but Padilla said the courts still should rule on his claim that his initial detention violated his constitutional rights.
The court's action Monday means his trial will proceed without that question being addressed, and the justices will get a chance to review the issue of his initial detention only if the government presses it anew.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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