ACLU Applauds Dramatic White House Defeat on Enemy Combatants; President Cannot Order Citizens Detained Without Charge or Attorney

December 18, 2003 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


NEW YORK – In a resounding defeat for the Bush administration, a federal appeals court in New York today ruled that a U.S. citizen, arrested on American soil, cannot be held at the sole discretion of the President without charges, trial or access to counsel. The American Civil Liberties Union praised the ruling, calling it a firm assertion that the President cannot assume unilateral powers — even, and especially, in times of national security crisis.

“Today’s ruling is a historic reassertion of the legislative and judicial role in providing a check on excessive executive branch authority,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director. “The President cannot step above the law by a stroke of his pen, especially in times of war or national crisis when our system of equal and dispassionate justice is all the more essential.”

Today’s ruling is the latest development in the legal fight over the fate of alleged “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, who the administration has detained as an “enemy combatant” since June 2002. Since then, Padilla has been held incommunicado, unable to consult with an attorney and held without charge in the Charleston, SC, naval brig.

Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, is alleged to have been involved in a foiled plot to explode a radiological weapon on U.S. soil.

In its 2-1 decision, the court ruled that Padilla’s detention exceeded the authority of the executive branch and that Padilla must be either charged under the criminal justice system or released. For more than two years, the Bush administration has argued that the “war on terrorism” permits the President this extraordinary unilateral power, an assertion that has been hotly contested across the political spectrum.

“This is a powerful and courageous decision,” said Steven Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director. “An American citizen, arrested on American soil, cannot be held at the whim of the President without charge or legal counsel. This decision makes clear that the war on terrorism does not not suspend the rule of law.”

The court held that the detention of Padilla violated a 1971 law, enacted by Congress to prevent any repeat of incidents like the Japanese internment in World War II, a historic tragedy based on an executive order that was also opposed by the ACLU. The statute reads, “[no] citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress.”

“While this ruling is a decisive victory for civil liberties, we should also bear in mind that Padilla has already been held for 18 months incommunicado without any opportunity to defend himself,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which co-authored the ACLU’s brief in the case.

The ruling is likely to have lasting repercussions on post-9/11 U.S. detention policies, the ACLU said. In addition to the enemy combatants designation, controversy has swirled around the hundreds of men being held incommunicado as non-citizen enemy combatants at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And, the Department of Justice was harshly criticized by its own internal watchdog this past June for its quasi-formal no-bond, no-release policy for the hundreds of largely Arab and Muslim men detained in the weeks and months after 9/11. Practically all of these detainees, some of whom languished behind bars for up to three months without seeing a lawyer, were found to have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.

The ACLU’s brief in the Padilla case can be found at:

The Court of Appeals decision can be read at: /node/35401

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release