WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said yesterday that it would weigh the constitutional implications of President Bush's decision to order the military detention of an American citizen who was arrested in the United States and has been held incommunicado and without charges as an "enemy combatant" for about 20 months.
The case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago street gang member and alleged al-Qaida recruit, is one of a trio the justices will hear in what experts are calling the most important wartime civil liberties issues to arise since World War II.
All three cases extend from Bush's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. All three will give the court its first chance to weigh in on the national debate over the balance between constitutional rights and national security. Decisions are expected this summer.
The justices said yesterday that they will hear arguments in the Padilla case in April when they are also set to hear a similar challenge brought by Yasser Hamdi, a U.S.-born man who was moved to Saudi Arabia by his family as a child. Hamdi, who was picked up in 2001 on the battlefield in Afghanistan, is in military custody.
But unlike Hamdi, Padilla was arrested on U.S. soil. Padilla's attorneys have argued from the start that it's unconstitutional to detain a U.S. citizen, arrested in his homeland and far from the zone of combat, without charging him or giving him access to courts and counsel.
At issue in the third case is the government's decision to hold about 660 foreign men who are alleged to be Taliban or al-Qaida fighters at a military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The men are not designated as prisoners of war. Advocates for the men say they have been denied basic rights accorded under U.S. and international law.
Donna Newman, who is Padilla's attorney, hailed the court's decision to take his case. "All the issues should be resolved by the court. They've already accepted on the Hamdi case, so it's important that they accept on the Padilla case, so they can resolve the question of the president's authority here in this country as well as on the battlefield."
Newman said she was confident that Padilla would prevail.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said Bush's "authority to designate individuals as enemy combatants is a vital part of the war on terrorism. The court's action today provides an opportunity to reaffirm this critical authority."
Bradford Berenson, who was associate counsel to Bush when Hamdi and Padilla were designated as enemy combatants, suggested the administration's advocates will portray the issues at stake in the starkest terms.
Acting on intelligence reports, the FBI secretly arrested Padilla in May 2002 after he arrived on an international flight at O'Hare International Airport. Officials later alleged he had met with senior al-Qaida leaders and was readying a possible attack with an explosive device packed with radioactive material - a so-called dirty bomb.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.