Court ruling could protect top Bush officials from terror lawsuits
The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a suit holding FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft responsible for wrongful detention of Muslims after 9/11.
The US Supreme Court handed a major victory to FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft on Monday when it dismissed a lawsuit that sought to hold both men personally responsible for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of post-911 detainees wrongly suspected of involvement in terrorism.Skip to next paragraph
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In a 5 to 4 decision, the high court ruled that the complaint against Mr. Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft must be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to present sufficient facts to justify the lawsuit.
The case was being closely watched because it raised the question of whether high-level government officials can be held accountable for harsh anti-terror policies that allegedly violate constitutional rights carried out by lower level officials.
"A plaintiff must plead that each government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
A plaintiff must "plead sufficient factual matter to show that [government officials] adopted and implemented the detention policies at issue not for a neutral, investigative reason but for the purpose of discriminating on account of race, religion, or national origin."
In a dissent, Justice David Souter said he would allow the suit to move forward. "[The complaint] does not say merely that Ashcroft was the architect of some amorphous discrimination, or that Mueller was instrumental in an ill-defined constitutional violation; [the complaint] alleges that they helped to create the discriminatory policy."
The high court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal will help insulate high-level government officials – and former Bush administration officials – from similar war-on-terror lawsuits. At the same time, it will make it significantly more difficult for current or former terror suspects and their lawyers to obtain judicial oversight of their treatment by the US government.
In his dissent, Justice Souter said the majority decision undercuts the possibility of suing government supervisors for the unconstitutional actions of their subordinates. Such suits were authorized in a 1971 Supreme Court case called Bivens.
"Lest there be any mistake," Souter wrote, "the majority is not narrowing the scope of supervisory liability; it is eliminating Bivens supervisory liability entirely."
Javaid Iqbal's case
The decision arises from a lawsuit filed by Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim, who sought to hold Mueller and Ashcroft accountable for harsh detention and interrogation methods used against him and other Muslim men arrested in New York City in the days and weeks after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The Iqbal case began in November 2001 when Mr. Iqbal was taken into custody and falsely labeled a terror suspect "of high interest" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Iqbal was held for 14 months – nearly half of them in a maximum security solitary-confinement cell – despite the lack of evidence of any involvement in terrorism.
His lawsuit charged that he was singled out because of his Muslim religion and Middle Eastern appearance. It said he was subjected to harsh treatment, including beatings, unnecessary body-cavity searches, and being held in an isolation cell with no ability to communicate with family, counsel, or other detainees.