When Justice Goes Mute

The American people are losing rights and freedoms each time a federal judge sides with the Bush administration's blanket orders to close courtroom doors, silence detainees or withhold evidence from defense lawyers.

Last week, a three-judge panel added another notch to the president's victory column by ruling that government agents could shut down a U.S.-based Islamic charity and then refuse to give any evidence to defense lawyers -- or the public -- of the group's alleged links to international terrorists.

The Global Relief Foundation, based in Illinois, is one of the world's largest Islamic charities. The president insists that it was directing contributions to terrorists. In December 2001, U.S. Treasury agents froze its bank accounts and confiscated computers.

Maybe Global Relief does aid terrorists. Maybe it doesn't, as the organization's lawyers insist. But by letting the government keep secret its evidence, the judges have rendered worthless the group's constitutional due process rights, including the right to contest these allegations. "If there is ... evidence," the charity's lawyer said, "it's evidence I've never seen."

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, government secrecy was sometimes necessary. Defense lawyers in cases involving national security got special clearance to review classified information or received specially edited versions of those documents. Now, they apparently get nothing.

American citizens should be more than a little alarmed at a lengthening chain of decisions in which judges sanction presidential actions shredding constitutional rights and limiting the openness that democracy needs to function. A federal trial judge last month upheld President Bush's odious policy of naming U.S. citizens as enemy combatants and detaining them indefinitely without charges or a trial, even as the judge ruled that those detainees had the right to meet with a defense lawyer. And in October, a divided federal appeals court in Philadelphia declared that the government may legally order immigration courts to hold all deportation hearings in secret for individuals targeted in the post-Sept. 11 sweeps.

Few doubt that the leaders of some charities operating in the U.S. are funneling money to homicidal zealots abroad while staff members ladle soup to hungry Muslim families. But when the administration and the courts imperiously ignore the Constitution to protect against this possibility, they lay the legal groundwork for a nation in which, far-fetched as it sounds now, federal agents could shut down the United Way and, when the public asked why, respond: "None of your business."

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