When Constitutional Rights Become Whimsical Privileges

There is a time for law-and-order government, but it should be within the law. It’s shameful that the case of Jose Padilla has gotten this far:

“Dirty bomb” suspect Jose Padilla has asked the Supreme Court to limit the government’s power to hold him and other U.S. terror suspects indefinitely and without charges.

The case of Padilla, who has been in custody more than three years, presents a major test of the Bush administration’s wartime authority. The former gang member is accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive device.

Justices refused on a 5-4 vote last year to resolve Padilla’s rights, ruling that he contested his detention in the wrong court. Donna Newman of New York, one of Padilla’s attorneys, said the new case, which was being processed at the court Thursday, asks when and for how long the government can jail people in military prisons.

“Their position is not only can we do it, we can do it forever. In my opinion, that’s very problematic and something we should all be very concerned about,” she said.

Maybe he’s guilty, maybe not, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an American citizen being jailed without charges. Three years is not a reasonable length of time to hold someone. If the government can’t figure out what he might have done, all involved are incompetent. If they’ve formed an opinion, but don’t feel obligated to share that with anyone, Padilla included, because they believe national security is more important than the Constitution, they don’t believe in the Constitution. They might as well declare the Constitution null and void. The Supreme Court is trying to do that, but it hasn’t gotten there yet. Until it does, the courts need to force the Justice Dept. to charge or release Padilla.

There’s hope that principles will prevail, as evidenced by this piece of logic:

“I think the court is going to have to take it,” said Scott Silliman, a former Air Force attorney and Duke University law professor. “This is a vital case on the principle of an American citizen captured in the United States, and what constitutional rights does he have.”

Of course, I believed that we’d already decided that issue through more than two hundred years of legal proceedings. That’s also why the next Supreme Court nominee is so vital. Better to have someone who understands that the Constitution exists than to have someone who will offer complete deference to the whims of the president. (This is where lackeys for President Bush like to add “in war time”. Until someone can offer a tangible definition of how we’ll know when the war is over and the presidency can revert to peace time rules, I’m leaving it out.)