Fair warning

April 05, 2006

It's a shame that the U.S. Supreme Court will not review the Bush administration's disgraceful treatment of Jose Padilla. Only three justices voted to hear the case - one short of what was needed - so a high court decision on the important question of whether the president has the power to seize an American citizen, such as Mr. Padilla, on American soil, and hold him indefinitely in military detention without criminal charges or a trial, is postponed until another day.

But there was an unusual and welcome warning to the Bush administration from three of the justices who were not ready to hear the case - including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. - that Mr. Padilla, who has been moved to a civilian prison and is awaiting trial on criminal charges, is entitled to the same rights as any criminal defendant, including the right to a speedy trial.

That should put the Bush administration on notice to stop some of its brazen tactics in this case. Last September, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals regrettably agreed with the administration's claim that holding Mr. Padilla, a so-called enemy combatant, in military prison for more than three years was necessary as a matter of national security. But then the administration suddenly transferred him to civilian custody and formally filed terrorist-related charges against him. A three-judge panel of the appellate court later gave the administration a sharp rap on the knuckles, speculating that the suspicious turnaround was aimed at keeping the case away from the Supreme Court.

Whatever the administration's motives, a majority of the justices have made it clear that they are paying careful attention to the case. The administration should consider itself fairly warned that if it tries again to change the "status or conditions" of Mr. Padilla's custody, the federal courts will be ready to pounce.

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