Supreme Court turns down Justice Department appeal of Demjanjuk case

October 04, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a surprising rebuff to the Clinton administration, the Supreme Court opened its new term yesterday by refusing to bolster the government's troubled legal maneuver aimed at forcing John Demjanjuk out of the country as a Nazi war criminal.

The term's first day was marked by a clear sign that the justices are shying away from many controversies, large and small: They denied review of all 1,659 cases that were covered by yesterday's orders.

This was the first time in memory that the court took on no new cases on its traditional "first Monday in October" beginning. Last year, it promised to review nine new cases on its first day; in earlier years, the number had been a dozen or more.

A week ago, before formally starting the term, the court had granted review of eight cases, but it had done the same thing last year -- granting seven cases ahead of time then -- and still added more on opening day. Both times, it acted early to try to fill empty space on its decision docket.

The most significant dispute the justices passed up yesterday was the legal saga that pits the Justice Department against Mr. Demjanjuk, a 74-year-old retired Ohio auto worker.

But the court also turned aside a host of other key issues, including the rights of public school students to be protected from being sexually assaulted by their teachers; the duty of public officials to ensure that their employees do not violate anyone's civil rights; the scope of laws limiting the defense that can be made to rape charges; the right of biological parents to reclaim their children from a family that had adopted them; and a major libel dispute testing the freedom of book reviewers and other critics to lambaste writers, artists and performers.

No explanation

The court, starting its nine-month session with an already sparse caseload, gave no explanation for turning down the new cases, including the latest controversy surrounding Mr. Demjanjuk. The government usually succeeds when it takes a major case to the Supreme Court, at least in getting the case heard.

Mr. Demjanjuk was sent to Israel, where he was convicted of Nazi death camp atrocities and sentenced to death. He ultimately got the Israeli verdict overturned and returned a year ago to his home in a suburb of Cleveland, where he has been the target of frequent anti-Nazi protests.

The Israeli Supreme Court had ruled that there was not enough evidence to justify his conviction as "Ivan the Terrible," a Nazi guard who tortured and killed Jews at the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, Poland, during World War II.

Similarly, a federal appeals court last November asserted that Justice Department lawyers knew there was strong evidence pointing to someone else as Ivan of Treblinka. It said Mr. Demjanjuk should not have been sent to Israel for trial, because Justice Department lawyers had illegally manipulated the war crimes case against him.

That was the ruling the Justice Department challenged in its new Supreme Court appeal, only to fail yesterday. The justices' refusal to hear the case was at least a symbolic victory for Mr. Demjanjuk; he no longer faces any war crimes prosecution.

But the action may turn out to be even more significant for him, because it could make it more difficult for the Justice Department to succeed in a separate effort to deport him permanently and to deny his bid to regain his U.S. citizenship.

The Justice Department's top appeals lawyer, Solicitor General Drew S. Days III, had cautioned the Supreme Court that a failure to hear the government appeal could threaten all the legal maneuvers pending against Mr. Demjanjuk.

A federal judge had put on hold, until after the Supreme Court acted, the new denaturalization and deportation plea the department had filed late last year. Presumably, that can now go forward.

Mr. Demjanjuk's son-in-law, Cleveland lawyer Ed Nishnic, said yesterday that the entire challenge to Mr. Demjanjuk's status as a citizen was "tainted" by the actions of Justice Department lawyers. He said that lawyers for the family are pondering their next step.

As for Mr. Demjanjuk, Mr. Nishnic said, "he was very pleased" by the Supreme Court action. "He is looking forward to getting his citizenship back."

The court's order, however, drew the criticism of the Anti-Defamation League. It said that the lower-court ruling in Mr. Demjanjuk's favor was based on "erroneous legal findings" of government misconduct.

The League said the government still has evidence that "Demjanjuk was an active participant in the Nazi Holocaust," and that should be sufficient to support earlier court orders nullifying his citizenship, and sufficient to support his deportation now.

The Justice Department has said that, even if Mr. Demjanjuk was not "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka camp, he did serve as a Nazi guard at one and possibly two other camps where Jewish prisoners were held. Moreover, the department has argued that Mr. Demjanjuk gained entry to the United States by lying about his Nazi posts.

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