Justices to rule on overseas captures

White House wants to give U.S. authorities power to make arrests worldwide

December 02, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider a Bush administration plea to extend U.S. law enforcement authority around the world, a significant issue as the government wages a global war on terrorism.

The justices granted review of a Justice Department appeal seeking to bar a lawsuit against the U.S. government by a Mexican citizen abducted in his country by U.S. agents, an action that he claims flouted international law.

If that case goes forward, the department argued, it would provide "terrorists or other criminals who hide in countries unwilling or unable to apprehend them using their own officers as a safe harbor" from U.S. laws that they are accused of having violated.

"It is precisely when criminals are harbored abroad that diplomatic, foreign policy and law enforcement concerns overlap and must be balanced, and that the need for decision-making by the Executive Branch becomes paramount," the appeal contended.

The case would not affect U.S. power to take custody of a terrorist or criminal suspect through an extradition treaty with another nation, or U.S. capture of "enemy combatants" during American military actions abroad.

Rather, the case focuses on U.S. authorities' power to act on their own to reach across a national border and capture a suspect, with or without the other government's knowledge or aid.

In a decision in June, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled that U.S. law enforcement does not extend to arrest and detention of aliens found in other countries.

Under international law, it said, "there exists a clear and universally recognized norm prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention."

A final Supreme Court ruling on the issue is expected by early next summer.

In other action yesterday, the court agreed:

To clarify the retroactive impact of its ruling last year that a jury, not a judge, must decide whether a convicted killer lives or dies. The high court forced changes in the death penalty laws of five states last year because those states gave judges the final say. The court did not make clear how its ruling should apply retroactively to inmates on death row.

Lower courts have divided over that question, which affects more than 100 death row inmates, and the Supreme Court has agreed to clear it up.

To hear the case of a California atheist who wants "under God" stripped from the Pledge of Allegiance. The court granted an exception to Michael Newdow, a doctor and lawyer who is not a member of the Supreme Court Bar but wanted to argue the case himself. Newdow has been writing and filing his own legal arguments but hasn't had his law license for the three years required to qualify for the Supreme Court Bar.

The court did not comment in granting his request.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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