Sunday, June 1, 2003

U.S. Supreme Court: Deportations

Scrutinize secrecy closer

The U.S. Supreme Court refused last week to take a closer look at secret deportation hearings for immigrants suspected of having ties to terrorism.

In its refusal, the high court let stand a decision from a federal appeals court in Philadelphia, which said there was no First Amendment right to public hearings in these cases.

At issue is a Justice Department rule created after Sept. 11, 2001 that allows immigration cases to be processed in complete secrecy if given the designation "special interest."

The newspaper publisher that appealed the rule, North Jersey Media Group, said the government should have to prove on a case-by-case basis why hearings should be closed, instead of simply giving the blanket designation to hundreds of cases.

The newspapers' request was reasonable. The Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals thought so, too, when it ruled in favor of the Detroit Free Press in a similar case last August.

"Democracies die behind closed doors," wrote Judge Damon Keith in that opinion. "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."

The "special interest" designation applied to 766 cases, according to the government. Of those, 611 had secret hearings and 505 were deported. Only one, Zacharias Moussauoi, the so-called 20th hijacker, was actually charged with terrorism-related crimes.

The Justice Department is planning to revise its rules on secret hearings in the near future anyway. Knowing that, the Supreme Court may have avoided taking the case in hopes that the situation would resolve itself.

Whatever the reason, the Court placed an unsettling amount of trust in the executive branch.

"When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people," wrote Judge Keith last August. "Selective information is misinformation."

That's not to say the government should never be allowed to hold such hearings in secret. Undoubtedly, there may sometimes be good reasons to do so in the post-Sept. 11 world.

But in a democracy, all citizens have a duty to be extremely suspicious of secrecy. We must make sure it's truly necessary before tolerating it, especially when so few of the "special interest" suspects actually have been charged with anything.

The Supreme Court isn't being sufficiently suspicious.

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