Supreme Court Rules Former Detainee Lawsuit Cannot Proceed

Monday, May 18, 2009; 12:08 PM

The Supreme Court ruled today that former attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller may not be sued by Arab Muslims who were seized in this country after the 2001 terrorist attacks and allege harsh treatment because of their religion and ethnicity.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that the top officials are not liable for the actions of their subordinates absent evidence that they ordered the allegedly discriminatory activity. The decision followed the court's ideological split between conservatives and liberals, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy siding with the conservatives and writing the opinion.

In a separate decision, the court ruled that women who worked for companies whose maternity leave policies were discriminatory cannot sue under today's laws that make such policies illegal. In a case involving AT&T, the court ruled 7 to 2 that such policies were "bona fide" at the time, and women may not challenge them retroactively.

The suit against Ashcroft and Mueller was brought by a Pakistani citizen living legally in the country when he was arrested in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Javaid Iqbal was held in solitary confinement in a section of a Brooklyn prison known as Admax-Shu, for "administrative maximum special housing unit," where he said he was subjected to numerous beatings and strip searches. He was convicted of document fraud and deported to Pakistan but cleared of any involvement in terrorism. An Egyptian Muslim who was also part of the suit, Ehad Elmaghraby, settled with the government for $300,000. Similar suits are pending.

Iqbal's case names prison guards, FBI agents, the warden of the prison -- who was the subject of a critical report from the Justice Department inspector general -- up to Ashcroft, who was attorney general at the time of the attack. Iqbal says policies formulated by Ashcroft and Mueller singled him out as a suspect of "high interest" solely because of his nationality and religion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York acknowledged that top government officials carry immunity but decided it was at least "plausible" that Ashcroft and Mueller were responsible for, or knew about, the discriminatory actions Iqbal alleges.


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