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Judge Rules U.S. Terror Suspect Held Unjustly by Administration

By Neil A. Lewis

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

A federal district judge in South Carolina ruled Monday that President Bush had greatly overstepped his authority by detaining a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant for nearly three years without filing criminal charges.

The judge, Henry F. Floyd, ruled that the government must release the American, Jose Padilla, within 45 days from the military brig in Charleston, S.C., where he has been held since June 2002. That left the Bush administration time to appeal, and a Justice Department spokesman, John Nowacki, said officials immediately decided to do so.

In his opinion, Floyd sharply criticized the administration’s use of the enemy combatant designation in Padilla’s case.

“The court finds that the president has no power, neither express nor implied, neither constitutional nor statutory, to hold petitioner as an enemy combatant,” Floyd wrote.

The judge said he had no choice but to reject the president’s claim that he had the power to detain Padilla, who was arrested in May 2002 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and was later accused of having planned to detonate a radiation-spewing “dirty bomb” in the United States as part of a plot by al-Qaida.

“To do otherwise would not only offend the rule of law and violate this country’s constitutional tradition,” Floyd wrote, “but it would also be a betrayal of this nation’s commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties.”

Floyd, who was nominated to the court by President Bush in May 2003, said that to agree with the president would “be to engage in judicial activism,” a phrase often used by the White House to criticize rulings with which it disagrees.

Although Floyd’s opinion was notable for its sweeping language, its substance was not a surprise because it reflected a Supreme Court ruling last June in a related case involving Yaser Esam Hamdi. Hamdi, a Saudi who was a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birth in the United States, was arrested on the battlefield in Afghanistan and held as an enemy combatant in the same brig in Charleston.

The justices ruled that Hamdi was entitled to have his case heard in court, saying “a state of war is not a blank check for the president.” But they declined to rule on the Padilla case at the same time, saying his lawyers had wrongly filed their claims in New York instead of South Carolina, where Padilla was being held.

Floyd noted, as had many analysts, that Padilla’s case was the stronger of the two because he was arrested on U.S. soil.

“The differences between the two are striking,” Floyd wrote.

Although the government might well argue that the use of force was needed to capture Hamdi on the battlefield and prevent attacks by al-Qaida, the same argument may not be used in the case of Padilla, who was “arrested in a civilian setting such as a United States airport.”

Padilla’s “alleged terrorist plans were thwarted at the time of his arrest,” the judge wrote, adding, “There were no impediments whatsoever to the government bringing charges against him for any one or all of the array of heinous crimes that he has been effectively accused of committing.”

If the government loses on appeal, it would have to release Padilla or charge him with criminal acts.