Justices hear terrorism cases

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court heard arguments in two war-on-terrorism cases Tuesday -- one that tests whether American civilians can seek the help of American courts if they are held in Iraq, and the other to determine whether the man who plotted to bomb Los Angeles International Airport will serve his full 22-year prison term.

In both cases, the justices sounded as though they would rule on the side of the Bush administration.

The first case, Munaf vs. Geren, asks the court again to define the reach of the right of habeas corpus: Does it give all persons who are held by U.S. authorities a right to appear before a U.S. court, even if the detainees are held outside the United States? Or is that right limited to those held in U.S. territory?

For the past four years, the justices have struggled to answer that question, which has been posed by foreigners detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration and Congress say these men do not have the right to have their cases heard in a U.S. court. That question is again pending before the justices.


The court will also decide whether the right to habeas corpus extends to Iraq. Mohammad Munaf, an Iraqi native who became a U.S. citizen in 2000, was arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2005 and accused of involvement in the kidnapping of three Romanian journalists for whom he was working as a translator. He maintains his innocence and says he fears that, as a Sunni Muslim, he will be tortured and killed if the U.S. military turns him over to Iraqi authorities.

Deputy Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre said Tuesday that U.S. courts have no role in this case. Iraq is a sovereign country and has the right to enforce its criminal laws, he said. It may “try and punish individuals, including American citizens, who voluntarily enter its borders, commit crimes in its country and remain there,” he said.

Northwestern University law professor Joseph Margulies disagreed. He said Munaf was being held by the U.S. military, not the Iraqis. “When a United States citizen is detained abroad by the United States military officials who have effective authority and control over [him], the U.S. district court has jurisdiction over that citizen’s habeas petition,” he said.

Most of the justices said they were skeptical of giving judges in the United States the authority to decide the claims of persons held in Iraq.


In the second case, Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey, making his first argument before the court, urged the justices to reinstate the 22-year prison term given to Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber. In December 1999, he was arrested by a customs agent in Port Angeles, Wash., when he tried to cross the border from Canada with a car packed with explosives.

Regardless of how the court rules, Ressam will remain in prison because he was convicted of multiple felonies.

Last year, however, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned one count against him because the law was too open-ended. It calls for a 10-year mandatory prison term for anyone who “carries any explosive during the commission of any felony.” Ressam lied to a customs agent -- a felony, under the law -- and he had explosives in his car. If the high court upholds the appellate court decision, his original 22-year sentence could be recalculated.

Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that this broad provision could lead to absurd results if prosecutors misused this power. For instance, he said, a person who drove to the post office to file a false tax statement could be given a 10-year term if he had firecrackers in his trunk.

Mukasey defended the law and its use. First, there was a clear connection between Ressam’s lying to the customs agent and the explosives in his car: He was trying to hide the plot.

Most of the justices said they agreed that Ressam deserved the full prison term, but they said they also remained trouble by the wording of the law.

Rulings in both cases are due by late June.