Washington. -- What would I want as the foundation of a truly just society? I would want judges who are not beholden to whatever politicians are in power, and who cannot be intimidated by the political, social, racial or religious passions of the day.
I am provoked to say this by the laudable actions of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of John Demjanjuk, who has long been demonized by "Nazi hunters" and a few U.S. officials as "Ivan the Terrible," a sadistic guard in the Treblinka death camp where some 850,000 Jews were mutilated and murdered in 1942 and 1943.
Mr. Demjanjuk returned to the United States Wednesday as a "free" man in a grotesque way, having escaped the gallows partly because the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his 1988 conviction as a maniacal murderer in that German-occupied World War II camp in Poland.
The Israeli Supreme Court found reasonable doubt that Mr. Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible," and it resisted intense pressures to try him again on rumors that he had been a guard at Sobibor, another camp in Poland where some 250,000 Jews were killed.
But the badge of courage goes to the judges of our Sixth Circuit, who sit in Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider what they did:
* While most judges will never entertain a thought that they let prosecutors, witnesses, federal agents mislead and even "sucker" them, the Sixth Circuit judges acknowledged that Mr. Demjanjuk, a Cleveland auto worker, might have been wronged when he was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981. The grounds were that he had lied about his past.
* The court acknowledged its suspicions that some Justice Department officials had acted wrongly in order to win approval for Mr. Demjanjuk's extradition to Israel in 1986.
* Gil Merritt, chief judge of the Sixth Circuit, was so worried that a grave injustice had been done that he appointed U.S. District Judge Tom A. Wiseman Jr., of Nashville, Tennessee, as a special master to study and report on all aspects of the case. Judge Wise man's report surely helped convince the Israeli Supreme Court of doubts that Mr. Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible."
* Judge Merritt was on the very short list of people whom President Clinton was considering for elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Byron White. American Jews who were furious over his search for the truth about Mr. Demjanjuk bombarded the White House, effectively wiping out Judge Merritt as a High Court candidate. The judge never put a possible Supreme Court appointment above his concerns about justice in the Demjanjuk case.
* When the Israeli courts first spoke of letting Mr. Demjanjuk go free, the Clinton administration, including Attorney General Janet Reno, tried to slam the door on him. They wanted him sent to his native Ukraine -- an easy, cowardly way to avoid the wrath of people taking the un-American stance that "the courts may have cleared Demjanjuk, but we still think he's guilty of something terrible."
* Mr. Merritt and other judges of the Sixth Circuit stood up to Ms. Reno and others in the Justice Department, saying in effect: "John Demjanjuk has had 12 years of hell, seven of them in an Israeli prison. He must be allowed to return to the United States and live here until we determine whether he was legally deprived of his citizenship, or whether there are just grounds to deport him to the Ukraine."
That stance is what judges should be about in a free society.
I'll never know whether Mr. Demjanjuk was a beastly killer during World War II. I do know that no one has proved he was a mass murderer beyond reasonable doubt. So I recoil at the fact that he is now marked for murder by fanatics who are outraged that neither the courts of the U.S. nor those of Israel would tolerate a legal lynching.
Every American who wants to be assured of a fair day in court, under whatever circumstances fate may bring, should shout: "Hooray for the Sixth Circuit!"
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.