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A ruling from the Supreme Court today may make it more difficult to sue high level government officials on charges of misconduct. The five to four ruling came in the case of a Pakistani man who was detained after 9/11. He had sued John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, and Robert Mueller, the former FBI director. He claimed they should be held accountable for the harsh treatment of Arab and Muslim men who were rounded up after 9/11. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg explains.

NINA TOTENBERG: Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani native living on Long Island with his American wife, was among hundreds arrested after 9/11 on immigration charges. He claims that solely because of his Muslim heritage, he was classified as a person of high interest and subjected to brutal treatment while detained in prison, that he was beaten, strip-searched several times a day, exposed to extreme heat and cold and that he was kept in solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day for six months.

A report by the Justice Department inspector general later criticized government officials for establishing a system of harsh conditions for men held on baseless leads that took the FBI months to investigate. Iqbal was eventually cleared of any terrorism charges. But he had violated the law by using someone else's Social Security number while his application for a green card was pending. He pleaded guilty and was eventually deported. The story did not end there, though.

He and another man sued over their treatment in prison, alleging that they were subjected to harsh conditions only because they were Arab Muslims. The other man settled his suit for $300,000 in damages. But Iqbal's case continued.

Among those named as defendants were prison guards and other officials, including Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller. The lawsuit charged that Ashcroft was the principal architect of a policy based on invidious discrimination, and that Mueller was instrumental in its adoption and execution.

The lower courts allowed the case to go forward, declaring that Iqbal had a plausible claim, and the government appealed to the Supreme Court. Today, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled that Iqbal's lawsuit did not state a plausible claim.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that in order to win this case, Iqbal would have to show that Ashcroft and Mueller intentionally singled out Arab Muslims on the basis of their religion or national origin for imprisonment and special harsh treatment.

We do not reject these claims because they are nonsensical or fanciful, said Kennedy, but because they are stated as conclusions without support. It should come as no surprise, he said, that in the wake of a devastating attack, law enforcement policymakers would direct the arrest of those with a suspected link to al-Qaida and that this policy would have a disproportionate, but incidental effect on Muslims.

Iqbal's lawsuit is not dead, however. The court specifically left intact the ongoing lawsuit against prison guards and low-level officials. And it did not foreclose the possibility of the lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller continuing.

Lawyers representing Iqbal said today they would seek to amend their complaint to keep the lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller alive. Cardozo law professor Alexander Reinert, one of Iqbal's attorneys, conceded today's ruling makes his task more difficult, but he downplayed its significance.

Professor ALEXANDER REINERT (Attorney, Cardozo School of Law): The court's decision clearly contemplates that individuals such as General Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller can be held liable, provided sufficient allegations are made and those allegations are proven. And so in that sense, we don't think it stops us in our tracks at all. It's a temporary detour, but we intend to continue with our case against these defendants.

TOTENBERG: ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt, who was not involved in this case, echoed that sentiment.

Mr. LEE GELERNT (ACLU Lawyer): Taking the opinion at its word, I do not think it sets up an insurmountable barrier. I also have no doubt these plaintiffs will likely be able to get over the barrier on remand and to re-plead their case, given everything we know that's come out since this complaint was filed — including what the Justice Department itself found in an internal report.

TOTENBERG: Gelernt acknowledged, however, that there's a danger in today's ruling for people seeking redress throughout the entire legal system if, in his words, the opinion is overread by the lower courts.

Mr. GELERNT: If you set up too high a barrier, what you essentially do is mean that no one can be sued at a level above people on the ground.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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