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Detained, Without Details

As the Supreme Court considers whether to hear Guantanamo Bay prisoner petitions, both sides cite a case from the Red scare of the 1950s.

November 01, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the second year of his confinement, Ignatz Mezei typed a short letter to a federal judge in New York.

"Let me go free," he wrote. "I did not kill anybody, I did not steal anybody, I did not make any crime."

Indeed, Mezei was not even accused of a crime. It was 1951, and the longtime U.S. resident was being held without charge in an Ellis Island prison because he was suspected of being a communist sympathizer.

It is a case that reverberates today as the legal fallout from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, makes its way through the courts. Among the links across half a century: William H. Rehnquist, then a young law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court and now its 79-year-old chief justice.

The Mezei case is being cited by both sides as Rehnquist's high court prepares to decide, as soon as Monday, whether to take up the cases of two groups of detainees at the special prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Like Mezei, they are non-U.S. citizens who are being held indefinitely, without charge, at water's edge. They, too, are seeking the right to confront their accusers in U.S. courts.

Mezei, a cabinetmaker who lived in Buffalo for many years, had attempted to return to the United States in February 1950 after a lengthy visit to Eastern Europe. Immigration officials, saying he had associated with communists in Buffalo, denied him reentry.

Two lower-level federal courts ordered him released; the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said his incarceration came "dangerously close to imprisonment for mere beliefs or propaganda." Both courts expressed frustration that the government refused to say specifically why it was holding him or to file charges so that he could defend himself.

But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision at the height of the Red scare of that time, ruled against Mezei. Among the memos filed in the case was one by Rehnquist, a clerk for Justice Robert Jackson.

"When it comes to this guy, I have trouble crying," Rehnquist wrote. "He lived in this country 25 years and never bothered to become a citizen." Rehnquist called it an "act of grace" for the government to let him "temporarily decamp on Ellis Island."

Mezei would "decamp" in the jail there for nearly four years, literally a man without a country.

The tiny isle in New York Harbor was then a clearinghouse for immigrants. It was only occasionally used as a detention facility for those with medical problems or security concerns that could not be immediately cleared up.

For Mezei, it became home until the Eisenhower administration quietly released him in 1954 as the government was closing down Ellis Island.

Freed at age 57, Mezei returned to Buffalo. He would live with his wife and four stepchildren in Derby, N.Y., until her death in 1969. He sold their home and returned to Hungary, where he is said to have died, largely forgotten, in the 1970s.

Supreme Court opinions in the Mezei case are being cited in the Guantanamo Bay cases.

The government cites the court's ruling that the immigration facility on Ellis Island was not part of the United States for purposes of conferring legal rights. It makes a similar argument about the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

One of the two petitions filed on behalf of some detainees at Guantanamo quotes from the Supreme Court dissent in the Mezei case, written by Justice Jackson.

As Jackson's clerk, Rehnquist researched the law and sometimes recommended how to rule in cases. But the justice, as he often did, sharply disagreed with his unabashedly conservative clerk in the Mezei case.

Jackson was especially troubled that the government "was afraid to tell him why it was afraid of him." Jackson also worried that future immigrants would be jeopardized by the denial of due process.

"It is inconceivable to me that this measure of simple justice and fair dealing would menace the security of this country," Jackson said. "No one can make me believe that we are that far gone."


The story of Ignatz Mezei (pronounced Meh-Zay) was pieced together from statements he gave to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; letters he wrote to court, to his lawyers and to the press; other court documents; a handful of newspaper clippings; and the fading recollections of family members who scarcely knew him.

Neither a stepdaughter in Buffalo nor a nephew in Miami could remember much about Mezei. They recall a lonely man who wandered away when family pictures were taken. Seldom would he talk about his years in detention, except to say on occasion, "It is like going to death.... You don't do nothing on Ellis Island. You go crazy."

He had brown hair, brown eyes, thick dark eyebrows and a wisp of a moustache. He looked rather rakish in his black cap and drab suit, riding the ferry back to Ellis Island after a court hearing in 1953.

Mezei was born ... who knows where?

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