WASHINGTON — FBI director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be sued by a former Sept. 11 detainee who said he was abused because of his religion and ethnicity, a sharply divided Supreme Court said Monday in a decision that could make it harder to sue top officials for the actions of low-level operatives.
The court overturned a lower court decision that let Javaid Iqbal's lawsuit against the high-ranking officials proceed.
Iqbal is a Pakistani Muslim who spent nearly six months in solitary confinement in New York in 2002. He had argued that while Ashcroft and Mueller did not single him out for mistreatment, they were responsible for a policy of confining detainees in highly restrictive conditions because of their religious beliefs or race.
The government argued that there was nothing linking Mueller and Ashcroft to the abuses that happened to Iqbal at a Brooklyn, N.Y., prison's Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit, and the court agreed.
"The complaint does not show or even intimate, that petitioners purposefully housed detainees in the ADMAX SHU due to their race, religion or national origin," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. "All it plausibly suggests is that the nation's top law enforcement officers, in the aftermath of a devastating attack, sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available until the suspects could be cleared of terrorist activity."
Richard Samp, lawyer for the Washington Legal Foundation, welcomed the court's ruling. "It ensures the ability of senior national security officials to perform their duties without the distraction of having to defend against claims for money damages," he said.
"The decision's effect will be widespread. By enabling all defendants to win dismissal of unsubstantiated claims, it will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to coerce settlements from defendants seeking to avoid the costs of discovery," Samp said.
The court's liberal justices — David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens — dissented.
"Iqbal contends that Ashcroft and Mueller were at the very least aware of the discriminatory detention policy and condoned it and perhaps even took part in devising it," Souter said.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts. Iqbal could have a case against others, Kennedy said.