It has only been five days since I returned to head the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office (I previously served in that role from 1993-2005), but imagine my surprise to read today that we can count former Attorney General John Ashcroft among our allies on the issue of using our regular civilian courts to handle terrorism prosecutions. I never would have thought one of my first public “thanks” would be directed to one of the ACLU’s frequent adversaries.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington, D.C., Ashcroft was asked by the Huffington Post about holding civilian trials for alleged terrorists, and responded that such venue “has use and utility.” Agreed! I spent the greater part of my time after September 11, 2001, challenging some of the worst abuses of civil liberties our country had seen in decades, often championed by then-Attorney General Ashcroft. He has good reason to defend the American judicial system, a system that has successfully prosecuted 300 terrorism-related cases, unlike the flawed military tribunals that have only prosecuted three.
It was, to put it mildly, a welcome surprise to read his comments from earlier today. Let’s hope they are heard by those few senators and representatives in Congress, who continue to push proposals to prohibit using our tried-and-true federal courts for terrorism cases. They want to force the administration to bring such prosecutions in the uncertain and unconstitutional military commissions system.
To go from being the attorney general who vigorously defended the Patriot Act eight years ago, to morphing into a calm citizen who is speaking in favor of our federal criminal courts today, John Ashcroft has indeed come a long way. As Daphne Eviatar pointed out earlier today, John Ashcroft isn't the only member of the GOP to have faith in federal criminal courts — Alberto Gonzales thinks they're the right venue too).
Welcome aboard the justice train, Mr. Ashcroft, and thank you.