November 1, 2002

Commentary

Court Re-emphasizes Importance of Civil Liberties

By Brian Gilmore

Attention, Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Despite the war on terrorism and our personal uncertainties, the most important ideals about America remain intact.

Civil liberties should be respected. The Constitution is not dead. The government needs to operate as an open entity, with the public and the press acting as a check and balance.

This was the brave ruling by a three-judge panel, including Judge Damon Keith, of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court recently declared unlawful secret deportation hearings conducted by the Justice Department.

“A true democracy is one that operates on faith —faith that government officials are forthcoming and honest,” Keith wrote, adding that “open proceedings, with a vigorous and scrutinizing press, serve to ensure the durability of our democracy.”

The case involves a Muslim cleric named Rabih Haddad, who was arrested two months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Haddad is a resident of Ann Arbor, Mich. He is also head of a controversial religious organization called the Global Relief Foundation that had its assets frozen after Sept. 11. Haddad had overstayed his tourist visa and was being deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The Justice Department, in moving forward with that deportation, closed all of his INS proceedings to everyone except his legal representatives. His family, friends, the press, even rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., were all told they could not gain access to any of Haddad’s hearings. The justification that was given: national security due to the war on terrorism. Haddad was denied bail, detained and is still in government custody.

The Bush administration set the policy on secret deportation hearings in select cases just 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The chief judge of the INS, Michael Creppy, closed all hearings in “special” cases to everyone except the deportee’s attorney or representative. This policy became known as the “Creppy directive.” In response to a suit challenging that directive, the U.S. District Court in Detroit ruled in April that the directive was unlawful and had to end immediately. Keith and his colleagues put an exclamation point on that ruling and set the Justice Department back on its legal heels.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Keith was in the middle of this truly important government-vs.-public clash. He has a consistent record on civil-liberties issues over the years. He was a student at the Howard University School of Law during the days when the great future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall would come by the school and rehearse his appellate arguments before the students. Keith was appointed to the federal bench in 1967 by President Johnson and to the appeals court by President Carter.

In the midst of a national crisis, Keith has come to the aide of the public with his judicial intellect and skill. He, along with his two fellow judges, is on the side of ordinary Americans. We should seek to preserve our civil liberties at all costs.

Poet and public-interest attorney Brian Gilmore is the author of two collections of poetry, including his latest, “Jungle nights and soda fountain rags: A poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra” (Karibu Books, 2000). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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