The real issue in the Padilla case is whether or not the president can repeal the central tenet of the Bill of Rights and jail an American citizen without charges. The constitution states that a mans liberty cannot be taken away without due process of law. Habeas corpus, the right to know why one is being imprisoned, is the clearly delineated faultline between freedom and tyranny. If the administration succeeds in its efforts, Bush will have overturned that fundamental principle and the inalienable rights of man will become the provisional gifts of the president.
The importance of the Padilla case cannot be overstated. The final verdict will determine whether we are still a nation of laws or if we are simply governed by the arbitrary authority of one man, George Walker Bush.
So far, the administration has succeeded in its main objective; to keep Padilla behind bars for nearly 4 years while preventing him from accessing the criminal justice system. The case has meandered from court to court, giving the appearance that some form of legal process is taking place but, in fact, Padilla has never been charged with a crime and, thus, has been denied all of his constitutional rights. At no point in time, has he ever been given the opportunity to challenge the terms of his incarceration before a judge.
Bushs actions have created a parallel justice system that exists outside statutory law and is answerable to the president alone. For Padilla, this means double jeopardy. First, he was held as an enemy combatant for 3 and a half years and, now, the administration wants to reverse itself and change that classification to criminal suspect. If the court allows the government to proceed on this track, Padillas years of solitary confinement will merely be dismissed as (what the 4th Circuit called) a mistake.
The moniker enemy combatant is critical to understanding the administrations strategy. It is a label that was hatched in a right-wing think tank to create a special category of criminal who can be summarily stripped of all civil liberties and human rights without legal recourse. The very term enemy combatant challenges our traditional values vis-à-vis the rights of man. The fate of the enemy combatant, whether an American citizen or not, depends entirely on presidential discretion. It confers dictatorial and unreviewable power on the executive. It is the end of any meaningful notion of inalienable rights or of checks on presidential power.
The government clearly has no interest in Padilla, a luckless gang member whose connection to terrorism is sketchy at best. In fact, the Justice Depts claims have changed so frequently that it is impossible to know what they may be from one month to the next. It is the precedent that matters to the Bush administration, not the spurious allegations. They are seeking a judicial ruling that will vindicate the cancelling out constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties. This will put the president squarely above the law.
The case has demonstrated the awesome power of the administration to manipulate public perceptions through demagoguery and to destroy Padillas chances for a fair trial. It has also exposed the collaborative role of the media in promoting the governments position while obscuring the shocking violations to personal freedom. And, although the administration has now completely changed its position and wants to charge Padilla as a criminal, (a clear admission that he was falsely accused to begin with) not one media organization in the nation has called for Padilla to be released.
This weeks ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily upset the administrations plans. Although the court endorsed the administrations position that the president has the right to indefinitely imprison enemy combatants in the war on terror, it has rejected the governments petition to vacate that ruling to prevent the case from going to the Supreme Court.
The administrations motives are clear. They do not believe that the Supreme Court will rule in their favor and deny an American citizen the right to due process. Now, the administration must figure out a way to preserve the tenuous notion of enemy combatant which guarantees the enhanced power of the president.
Would the Supreme Court really reject the arguments of the man they helped to catapult into office by a 5 to 4 vote in the 2000 presidential election? Or will they find some way of defending these unconstitutional powers by issuing a purposely ambiguous verdict that will allow Bush to continue to act with impunity?
Theres no doubt that the administration believes in the supreme power of the executive and is dragging the nation towards some form of tyranny. The White House attorneys have worked tirelessly drawing up the legal justifications for everything from massive domestic spying operations to the cruel and inhuman treatment of foreign nationals. The solitary function of the Bush legal team is the dismantling of existing laws. Padillas case is no different.
Dick Cheneys chief-of-staff David Addington, summarized it best when he stated, Congress may no more regulate the presidents ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.
The president is answerable to no one. He stands above the law and may do as he pleases. Padilla has no rights and, by extension, neither does any other American citizen.
It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the Constitution has any meaning or if it just a goddamned piece of paper as Bush claims.