Justices Decide Padilla Case on Technicality

Lawsuit Challenging Detention Must Be Refiled in Lower Court


Monday, June 28, 2004; 11:50 AM

The Supreme Court Monday decided the case of a terror suspect Jose Padilla on narrow procedural grounds and ruled a federal court in New York lacked jurisdiction over the case, a decision that sidestepped whether President Bush has the power to detain him.

By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that Padilla should have brought the case instead in South Carolina, where he has been held in a U.S. military jail as an "enemy combatant."

The four dissenters said they would have decided the heart of the case. "At stake in this case is nothing less than the essence of a free society," Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the dissenters, wrote.

Padilla, a former Chicago gang member and convert to Islam, initially was suspected by U.S. officials of plotting with al Qaeda to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States.

The Justice Department released newly declassified information on June 1 that al Qaeda's leaders were skeptical Padilla could carry out the attack and instead sent him to the United States to try to blow up apartment buildings by using natural gas. None of the plots were ever carried out.

Padilla, who has never been charged, has been confined in a military brig in South Carolina for about two years without any of the customary protections of the U.S. legal system.

A U.S. appeals court in New York had ordered Padilla's release on the grounds that Bush overstepped his authority in ordering the detention.

The government argued both that Bush has the authority to detain Padilla, and more narrowly that the case should have been brought in South Carolina instead of New York.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist reversed the appeals court ruling and ordered the case to be dismissed, but allowed it to be brought again in South Carolina.