The nation’s highest court has rejected a lawsuit against a former U.S. attorney general over the arrest of an American Muslim who says he was wrongly detained for more than two weeks as the U.S. government pursued the post 9/11 "war on terror." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Abdullah al-Kidd cannot personally sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Abdullah al-Kidd was arrested at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2003 and released 16 days later without being charged. After being freed from jail, he was held under supervised release for another 14 months.
Al-Kidd was held as a material witness under a federal law. The purpose of the law was to compel witnesses to testify in court.
Al-Kidd said that instead of being treated as a potential witness, he was strip-searched, kept in shackles and questioned without an attorney present.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented al-Kidd, argued that the law was used improperly to keep their client in custody while federal agents investigated.
A federal court [the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals] agreed, ruling that al-Kidd’s lawsuit against Ashcroft could go forward, and denying the former attorney general’s request for immunity.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling overturned that decision.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.”
A law professor at the American University College of Law, Stephen Vladeck, said the justices agreed unanimously that Ashcroft could not be sued personally. And a majority also rejected the merits of al-Kidd's case.
“The majority, led by Justice [Antonin] Scalia, went out of its way to say that even with immunity, al-Kidd could not have won on the merits, because Ashcroft did not, in fact, violate his Fourth Amendment [constitutional] rights.”
Vladeck said it was a narrow ruling, which is not likely to have a broad effect on future government efforts to prosecute terrorism suspects.
“That is unfortunate for al-Kidd, but insofar as broader legal developments going forward, I suspect this decision will actually have a negligible impact,” he said.
The professor said the ruling was the latest in a decade-long trend in court decisions. According to Vladeck, damage suits against the government arising out of counterterrorism policies have been difficult to pursue.
“This decision, like many of the decisions before it, really does not put that much of a deterrent on this or any future government when it comes to aggressive counterterrorism policies, and I think that may be where there is matter for concern,” said Vladeck.
Eight of the nine justices took part in the ruling. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate, because she had served as the Obama administration’s solicitor general before being named to the high court.