MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Just across the Potomac River, the U.S. Supreme Court today sidestepped another High-profile case involving terrorism. The case tests whether an American citizen, captured on U.S. soil, may be held for years without charge as an enemy combatant.
But while the high court ducked addressing the question, it sent a pretty clear message about where it stands on the issue. NPR's Nina Totenberg has that story.
NINA TOTENBERG reporting:
The case involves Jose Padilla, an American arrested at O'Hare Airport in 2002 and held, without charge, as an enemy combatant for almost four years. At first, the government said Padilla had been plotting to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb. Later, the Justice Department said he'd been plotting to blow up apartment houses in Chicago, but no charges were filed.
And Padilla appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that an imprisonment without a chance to prove innocence is unconstitutional. The first time his case went to the court two years ago, it was derailed on a technicality. But in a much more difficult case, involving a U.S. citizen seized on the battlefield in Afghanistan, the court ruled in favor of the prisoner. Padilla, however, remained in prison while his case worked its way back to the Supreme Court.
Then, with his case back before the high court, the government made an abrupt, strategic U-turn. It abandoned its allegation that Padilla was an unlawful enemy combatant, and instead, indicted him on charges that bore no resemblance to the previous terrorism accusations made against him.
The government, this time, charged that Padilla had raised money and recruited fighters for Jihad outside the United States, and the Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to dismiss Padilla's appeal as moot.
Today, the Supreme Court gave the administration what it wanted, but three justices dissented, and three more justices sent the administration a clear warning. The three dissenters, Justices Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer, said the court should have ruled on Padillo's case because even if he's eventually acquitted, the government can then reclassify him as an enemy combatant all over again and keep him in prison.
But three other justices in the majority, Justices Kennedy, Stevens and Chief Justice Roberts warned the government not to do that or the court would assuredly intervene.
Michael Greenberger is Director of the Center on Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
Professor MICHAEL GREENBERGER (Director, Center on Health and Homeland Security, University of Maryland): They made it very clear to the government that if there are any more procedural hijinks in the case, the court will be ready to hear it very promptly.
TOTENBERG: And when they say hear it, don't you think there's an implication of more than hear it?
Professor GREENBERGER: I think there definitely was a message within this opinion that, on top of hearing it, that the government's theory on which it was holding Padilla would be rejected, and, in fact, I think the government knew it was skating on very thin ice to begin with.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, many court observers saw today's decision to dismiss the Padilla case as a short-term victory for the president, a victory that avoids the embarrassment of an outright loss for the administration. But a caution that if it comes back again with the Padilla case or another like it, the administration will not prevail. Again, Professor Greenberger.
Professor GREENBERGER: I think we're going to see the end of the use of the enemy combatant status, certainly arresting a U.S. citizen in the United States and claiming they can be held incommunicado without contact to the outside world. I think that chapter has ended.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.