WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by a citizen who said he had been tortured at a military jail in South Carolina and who sought to hold former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials accountable.
The justices let stand a U.S. appeals court ruling that dismissed the lawsuit by Jose Padilla on the grounds his allegations lacked merit. The appeals court said he had no right to sue for the alleged constitutional violations and the judiciary could not review such sensitive military decisions.
Padilla, a former Chicago gang member and a Muslim convert turned al Qaeda recruit who had been convicted on terrorism charges, sued a number of U.S. military and Defense Department officials, including Rumsfeld.
In the lawsuit Padilla sought a declaration that his designation as an enemy combatant, his military detention and his treatment in custody were unconstitutional. He had been held in the military prison from June 2002 until January 2006.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Padilla, appealed to the Supreme Court.
They said the case posed the single question of whether federal officials responsible for the alleged torture of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil may be sued for damages under the Constitution.
Before the Supreme Court ruling, Ben Wizner, the main ACLU attorney in the case, said allowing the appeals court ruling to stand would give government officials a blank check to commit abuse in the name of national security.
Padilla was taken into custody in Chicago in May 2002 after arriving at O’Hare International Airport from Pakistan via Switzerland.
Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said at the time Padilla was suspected of plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a U.S. city, but Padilla never was charged with planning such an attack.
Then-President George W. Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant a month later, saying he possessed valuable intelligence about al Qaeda.
Padilla was taken to a Navy jail in South Carolina, where he said he was held in isolation, shackled for hours in excruciating positions and subjected to prolonged periods of constant light and then complete darkness.
A federal judge in South Carolina dismissed Padilla’s lawsuit and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed. It said courts were not the proper forum for Padilla’s objections to policies adopted by the U.S. government and Congress that resulted in his detention and interrogation.
Attorneys representing Rumsfeld and five other former Defense Department and military officials opposed the appeal and said further Supreme Court review of the case was unwarranted.
“Settled law clearly shields military officials from personal liability for their execution of the president’s and Congress’s war powers, as well as more broadly for implementation of military policies and operations,” their main lawyer, Richard Klingler, wrote in a brief filed with the court.
Last month, a U.S. appeals court based in California dismissed a similar lawsuit by Padilla. He sought to hold former U.S. Justice Department lawyer John Yoo responsible for helping formulate policies that led to Padilla’s alleged torture.
Padilla was convicted in 2007 in a U.S. court in Miami on charges of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people abroad, conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism and providing material support for terrorism.
Padilla is being held in a federal prison in Colorado. He has been awaiting resentencing after a federal appeals court ruled his 17-year prison sentence was too lenient.
The Supreme Court turned down the appeal without comment.
The Supreme Court case is Estela Lebron and Jose Padilla v. Donald Rumsfeld, No. 11-1277.
Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech