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Justice Dies in the Dark

April 03, 2002

Openness is a hallmark of this nation's legal system. The founding fathers knew that secret court proceedings give cover to corrupt or tyrannical judges and sloppy prosecutors, that judges who can hide can easily abuse power. Yet shortly after the September terrorist attacks, immigration judges around the country slammed shut the doors of their courtrooms, barring the public, the press and even relatives of the oh-so-vaguely accused men and women rounded up by the thousands under blanket orders from the attorney general.

A federal judge could decide this week whether this secrecy should stand. We hope she agrees that it should not.

The case before the Detroit federal court involves proceedings against Rabih Haddad, a Muslim religious and community leader from Ann Arbor, Mich. Haddad is a Lebanese citizen who has lived in the United States on and off for the past 20 years. He last entered in 1998 under a tourist visa, which has since expired.

Last year, Haddad applied for permanent residency. As part of the mass arrests of Middle Eastern men after Sept. 11, federal agents picked up Haddad for overstaying his visa. He has been jailed since and is now being held in a Chicago federal prison, in solitary confinement, pending a final deportation hearing.

The government has made no allegation that Haddad had any role in the terrorist attacks, which he loudly condemned. Yet in December, the court barred Haddad's family, along with newspaper and television reporters and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), from attending his first immigration hearing. In closing the doors, the judge in that proceeding was acting in accordance with a September memo issued by the chief immigration judge, on orders from Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

The Detroit News and Conyers have brought suit challenging the blanket closed-door order. A similar case is pending in a New Jersey federal court.

The plaintiffs are not insensitive to Ashcroft's concern that information jeopardizing national security will be made public if these hearings are open. Rather, they argue that before imposing secrecy the government must show, based on the evidence in each case, that allowing in the press and the public would put the nation at risk.

The government would be hard-pressed to make that claim in Haddad's case. His lawyers, who were not bound by a gag order, said that no evidence presented in that first hearing bore the slightest resemblance to a national security threat.

Ashcroft no doubt figures he has his hands full fighting terrorism and that the courts should not be bothered with such distinctions. We hope the judge in Detroit and then the one in New Jersey will offer rulings to remind him that fair trials and open government are precisely the democratic virtues he is supposed to be defending.

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