WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court intervened again Monday in a lawsuit against a former Bush administration official, agreeing to decide whether former Attorney General John Ashcroft is entirely shielded from claims that he misused the law to arrest terrorism suspects under false pretenses.
Obama administration lawyers appealed on Ashcroft's behalf and asserted that it would "severely damage law enforcement" if the nation's top law enforcement official could be held liable for abusing his authority.
In the last five years, civil libertarians have tried — without much success — to sue former Bush officials for overstepping the law. Last year, the Supreme Court shielded Ashcroft from being sued by Muslim immigrants in the New York area who said they were arrested and abused in jail after the Sept. 11 attacks, even though they had no involvement in a terrorism plot.
The current case arose when Lavoni Kidd, a former football star at the University of Idaho, was arrested and shackled at Washington's Dulles International Airport in March 2003. He was not taken into custody because he was suspected of a crime but because he was a supposed "material witness" in another case.
Federal law permits the government in special situations to hold someone as a material witness in a pending case. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union accused Ashcroft of a "gross abuse" of this authority. They say he misused the law to arrest innocent people, even when the government lacked probable cause.
After the Sept. 11 attacks Ashcroft announced he would use all of his legal authority to capture terrorists. Hundreds of Muslim men were arrested and held on immigration charges. That option was not available in Kidd's case because he is a U.S. citizen.
Kidd had converted to Islam in college and changed his name to Abdullah Al-Kidd. He had cooperated with the FBI after the Sept. 11 attacks and answered questions about a Muslim man in Idaho who was under investigation in connection with his website.
Several months had elapsed since Kidd had heard from the FBI, but when he bought a round-trip ticket to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he had a scholarship to study, the FBI moved to have him arrested.
Kidd was repeatedly strip-searched and shackled for more than two weeks in a high-security cell where the lights were kept on, according to his complaint. He was then released, but his passport was taken.
In 2005, Kidd sued Ashcroft and other officials, contending they had violated his constitutional rights by arresting him without probable cause. Ashcroft moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that as the nation's chief prosecutor, he was absolutely immune from such claims. But a federal judge in Idaho and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to dismiss the suit.