Spanking Ashcroft -- and loving it 

“Democracies die behind closed doors.” Those words, issued Monday by Judge Damon Keith, should be branded into the brain stem of every politician ever to hold office, but in particular those of George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and the posse of constitutionally challenged zealots that rides with them. Keith’s opinion, reflecting a unanimous Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the case of Rabih Haddad, serves as a stinging rebuke of Ashcroft and his Justice Department’s sweeping attempts to conduct secretive immigration hearings.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), Metro Times and other newspapers, argued that Ashcroft couldn’t issue broad rules barring the press and public from deportation hearings. Immigration officials nabbed Haddad, a Lebanon native and longtime Ann Arbor resident, last December for overstaying his visa. Haddad co-founded Global Relief Foundation, whose offices were raided the same day Haddad was taken into custody. The Islamic charity is suspected of funding terrorist groups, the government says.

Metro Times has no position regarding the merits of Haddad’s case. But the paper has vigorously opposed the decision to close hearings for Haddad and other immigrants rounded up following last September’s terrorist attacks.

Judge Keith eloquently reinforced that belief in an opinion which, in part, states: “The Executive Branch seeks to uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye, and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately in deportation proceedings. When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”

“We’re thrilled with this important ruling,” says Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. “It’s a strongly worded decision that really takes the government to task for trying to deprive the public of basic information about the courts.”

The ruling, she adds, could affect thousands of similar immigration hearings.

The Justice Department has a different reaction.

“As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized today, the government has a compelling interest in preventing terrorism and closing immigration proceedings that could reveal information that allows ‘terrorist organizations to alter their patterns of activity to find the most effective means of evading detection,’” Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock notes. “However, the Justice Department disagrees with the Court’s conclusion that the Department’s guidelines for determining which proceedings should be closed are too broad. The Justice Department has an obligation to exercise all available options to disrupt and prevent terrorism within the bounds of the Constitution, and will review today’s opinion in light of our duty to protect the American people.”

In other words, don’t be surprised if the wing nuts on the U.S. Supreme Court are asked to issue a final verdict.

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