The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Monday upheld the dismissal [opinion, PDF] of a lawsuit brought by US citizen and convicted terrorist Jose Padilla [BBC profile; JURIST news archive], who alleged that he had been illegally detained at a military jail in South Carolina. Claiming nominal monetary redress against Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta [official profile] and former secretary Donald Rumsfeld [BBC profile], among others, Padilla argued that the Defense Department's methods of detaining him as an "enemy combatant" were unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit disagreed and held that Padilla could not use a lawsuit seeking monetary damages to review an issue involving national security and that the judiciary was not the proper forum to rule on the legislature-adopted policies responsible for his detention. The court reasoned that allowing such lawsuits "would expose past executive deliberations affecting sensitive matters of national security to the prospect of searching judicial scrutiny." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], which brought the suit on Padilla's behalf, was quick to express its discontent with the ruling [statement]:
Today is a sad day for the rule of law and for those who believe that the courts should protect American citizens from torture by their own government. By dismissing this lawsuit, the appeals court handed the government a blank check to commit any abuse in the name of national security, even the brutal torture of a US citizen on US soil. This impunity is not only anathema to a democracy governed by laws, but contrary to history's lesson that in times of fear our values are a strength, not a hindrance.Padilla's case, filed pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [opinion], was originally dismissed [JURIST report] in February by the US District Court for the District of South Carolina [official website], which ruled that the defendants had qualified immunity under the circumstances. Padilla was arrested in 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and thereafter detained as an enemy combatant. He was convicted on terrorism charges in 2007 and sentenced [JURIST reports] to 17 years in prison.
This is the latest case involving the liability of government officials for their actions in the US War on Terror. In August, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] ruled [JURIST report] that a torture lawsuit against former secretary Rumsfeld by two American citizens may proceed under the cause of action recognized in Bivens. Also in August, the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] allowed a lawsuit to be brought against Rumsfeld [JURIST report] by a former US military contractor who alleged that he had been tortured while imprisoned in Iraq. By contrast, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] in 2011 upheld the dismissal [JURIST report] of a suit against Rumsfeld brought by Afghan and Iraqi citizens who claimed that they were illegally detained and tortured. Also in 2011, the US Supreme Court [official website] ruled that former US attorney general John Ashcroft [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] was immune from a suit [JURIST report] involving allegedly unconstitutional witness detention, and that he should be entitled to absolute immunity where there is no clear violation of established law.