Justice Department Suffers Double Blow

The Senate bashes Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (before Republicans block a no-confidence vote). And a federal appeals court in Virginia issues a scathing opinion regarding U.S. policies on "enemy combatants."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Justice Department had a rough day yesterday. The Senate spent a couple of hours bashing the attorney general before Republicans blocked a no-confidence vote on Alberto Gonzales. And in Richmond, Virginia, a federal appeals court issued a scathing opinion, calling the Justice Department's detainee policies unconstitutional.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this roundup.

ARI SHAPIRO: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was expecting the abuse from Capitol Hill when the Senate debated whether to hold a no-confidence vote - the court decision out of Richmond came as more of a surprise.

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): I'm disappointed by the decision. Obviously, I haven't read the decision. It's an 80-something-page decision. We've decided we're going to seek a rehearing before the entire circuit.

SHAPIRO: The decision is 86 pages, including the dissent. It's about the only enemy combatants still being held in the U.S., and it's full of zingers like the president cannot eliminate constitutional protections with a stroke of a pen, and for a court to uphold the claims of such extraordinary power would effectively undermine all of the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.

The man at the center of this case is Ali Al-Marri. His lawyers described him as a guy who moved with his family from Qatar to Peoria, Illinois to get a master's degree. Attorney General Gonzales described him this way.

Attorney General GONZALES: This is an individual that was in Osama bin Laden's training camp in 2001.

SHAPIRO: Al-Marri's been in a South Carolina military prison for four years without charge or access to a lawyer. The Bush administration says that's because he's an enemy combatant. But yesterday, the court ruled he's not. He's a civilian entitled to due process rights, no matter what the president says.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote: The president's constitutional powers do not allow him to order the military to seize and detain indefinitely Al-Marri without criminal process any more than they permit the president to order the military to seize and detain without criminal process other terrorists within the United States - like the Unabomber or the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing. Jonathan Hafetz is Al-Marri's lawyer.

Mr. JONATHAN HAFETZ (Al-Marri's lawyer): This is a landmark decision that affirms the right of all individuals in this country, the habeas corpus, and rejects the administration's attempt to detain people indefinitely without charge.

SHAPIRO: Habeas corpus is the right to challenge one's imprisonment. Yesterday's ruling held that Congress violated the constitution when it passed a law last year denying habeas corpus rights to people like al-Marri. That part of the ruling could speed up a bipartisan Senate bill that would restore habeas corpus rights to any future enemy combatants in the U.S. and to detainees at Guantanamo. But habeas corpus was not on the Senate's mind yesterday. Instead, the hot topic was, one again, Attorney General Gonzales.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): He has politicized this department to a degree not seen since the Nixon administration.

SHAPIRO: Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse was one of those arguing for a vote expressing no-confidence in the attorney general.

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: You can say that this is just a partisan exercise, but it may take a decade to repair the damage that Attorney General Gonzales have caused.

SHAPIRO: The Republicans who opposed the measure did not exactly defend the attorney general. Instead, like Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, they criticized the decision to consider a largely symbolic no-confidence vote in the first place.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): The American people may not have particular confidence one way or the other in this attorney general, but this is not an election of the attorney general.

SHAPIRO: Before the vote took place, Gonzales spoke at a federal law enforcement conference in Miami. He told reporters there that he's not paying attention to all the criticism.

Mr. GONZALES: I am focused on sprinting to the finish line. The department's not going to stumble. We're not going to crawl to the finish line. The issues that we work on are, quite frankly, just too darn important.

SHAPIRO: In the Senate yesterday, Majority Leader Harry Reid used the same rationale to urge Gonzales' ouster. The Justice Department's work is too important.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): The Department of Justice's credibility is shredded. Its morale is in an all-time low, and the blame for the tragic deterioration lies squarely on the shoulders of two people: the president of the United States and the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales.

SHAPIRO: In the end, Democrats needed 60 votes to act on the resolution. They got 53, including six Republicans. Thirty-eight senators opposed bringing the measure to a vote.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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