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SUPREME COURT RULINGS

Hearings to Remain Secret

May 28, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a victory for the Bush administration, the Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a challenge to the use of secret deportation hearings authorized after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Without comment, the justices turned away an appeal brought by news organizations in New Jersey.

So far, the high court has shown no interest in taking up legal claims that have arisen recently in the war on terrorism.

In the weeks after the 2001 attacks, federal agents arrested and detained several hundred immigrants, most of them Muslim men.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft ordered that their deportation hearings be held behind closed doors. No reporters or members of the public were allowed to observe the proceedings.

"Open hearings might impair national security," he said Tuesday. "This authority to close hearings is an important constitutional tool in this time of war, when we face an unparalleled threat from covert and unknown foes spread across the globe."

But civil libertarians said the policy of secrecy would allow the government to violate basic rights without accountability.

In Detroit and New Jersey, news organizations sued to challenge the policy, arguing that it violated the 1st Amendment right to freedom of the press.

While the high court has said that criminal trials must be open to the public and the press -- except in rare circumstances -- it has not extended this rule to civil proceedings, including immigration hearings.

Lower courts have handed down conflicting rulings. In the Detroit case, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the press and said that democracy requires open hearings.

But in the New Jersey case, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Bush administration, saying there was no such 1st Amendment right.

The New Jersey media appealed to the Supreme Court and urged the justices to resolve the dispute.

Meanwhile, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson said there was no need for the court to take up the matter, because nearly all the immigrants at issue have been deported.

The government is revising its policies on handling immigrant cases, he said, so "review at this juncture would be premature."

So, in a one-line order, the court turned away the appeal, leaving the law unresolved for now.

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