High court blocks detainee's lawsuit

By Jesse J. Holland
Associated Press / May 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON - FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be sued by a former Sept. 11 detainee who claimed he was abused because of his religion and ethnicity, a sharply divided Supreme Court said yesterday in a decision that could make it harder to sue top officials for the actions of low-level operatives.

The court overturned a lower court decision that let Javaid Iqbal's lawsuit against the high-ranking officials proceed.

Iqbal is a Pakistani Muslim who spent nearly six months in solitary confinement in New York in 2002. He had argued that although Ashcroft and Mueller did not single him out for mistreatment, they were responsible for a policy of confining detainees in highly restrictive conditions because of their religious beliefs or race.

But the government argued that there was nothing linking Mueller and Ashcroft to the abuses that happened to Iqbal at a Brooklyn, N.Y. prison's Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit, and the court agreed.

"The complaint does not show or even intimate, that petitioners purposefully housed detainees in the ADMAX SHU due to their race, religion, or national origin," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. "All it plausibly suggests is that the nation's top law-enforcement officers, in the aftermath of a devastating attack, sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available until the suspects could be cleared of terrorist activity."

The New York-based 2d US Circuit Court of Appeals had said the lawsuit could proceed.

Richard A. Samp, lawyer for the Washington Legal Foundation, welcomed the court's ruling. "It ensures the ability of senior national security officials to perform their duties without the distraction of having to defend against claims for money damages," he said.

"The decision's effect will be widespread. By enabling all defendants to win dismissal of unsubstantiated claims, it will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to coerce settlements from defendants seeking to avoid the costs of discovery," Samp said.

The court's liberal justices - David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and John Paul Stevens - dissented from the court's opinion.

"Iqbal contends that Ashcroft and Mueller were at the very least aware of the discriminatory detention policy and condoned it and perhaps even took part in devising it," Souter said. He should be given chance to prove his claims in court, Souter said.

Kennedy said the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by Arab Muslims who counted themselves members of Al Qaeda.

"It should come as no surprise that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the purpose of the policy was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims," he said.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts. Iqbal could have a case against others, Kennedy said.

Iqbal was arrested at his Long Island home on Nov. 2, 2001, and charged with nonviolent federal crimes unrelated to terrorism. Two months later, he was moved to a facility in Brooklyn, where he was in solitary confinement for more than 150 days without a hearing, his lawsuit alleges.

He was cleared of involvement in terrorism and deported after pleading guilty to fraud.