WASHINGTON, May 31 (Reuters) - Former Attorney General John
Ashcroft cannot be held liable for the detention of an American
Muslim after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the Supreme Court
said on Tuesday in a decision that granted him immunity.
The justices unanimously overturned a ruling that allowed
Abdullah al-Kidd to proceed with his lawsuit against Ashcroft
over his arrest, alleged mistreatment and 16-day detention
under a U.S. material witness law.
Kidd, born in Kansas, attended the University of Idaho in
the mid-1990s, when he converted to Islam. The FBI arrested him
in 2003 at Washington's Dulles International Airport before his
departure to Saudi Arabia for language and religious study.
He was held as a material witness in the Idaho case of Sami
al-Hussayen, who had been charged with visa fraud and making
false statements. Kidd, who had helped at an Islamic charity in
Idaho with Hussayen, was never asked to testify in the case.
The high court agreed with the Obama administration that
Ashcroft, who as President George W. Bush's first attorney
general helped craft tough anti-terrorism policies adopted
after the Sept. 11 attacks, had immunity from such lawsuits.
At issue was a law that allows material witnesses -- those
who might have key information and be crucial to a case -- to
be held even though they are not suspected of wrongdoing and
not charged with a crime.
Civil liberties groups have said Kidd was one of about 70
men, almost all Muslims, arrested and held after the Sept. 11
attacks under the law that compels witnesses to testify before
grand juries and at trials.
Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union,
representing Kidd, argued that the law can only be used to
secure testimony, not as a pretext to detain and investigate
someone who ends up never being charged with a crime.
A federal judge and the 9th Circuit court of appeals ruled
the lawsuit against Ashcroft could go forward, but the Supreme
Justice Antonin Scalia said for the court that Ashcroft did
not violate clearly established law and thus is entitled to
immunity. Ashcroft did not violate Kidd's constitutional
rights, Scalia said.
Immunity protects all government officials except those who
are plainly incompetent or knowingly break the law, Scalia
said, adding, "Ashcroft deserves neither label."
Lee Gelernt of the ACLU said of the ruling, "The court has
unfortunately let Attorney General Ashcroft off the hook."
The ruling only addressed whether Ashcroft can be held
liable, not broader questions about whether use of the material
witness statute was lawful.
Gelernt said four justices raised serious questions about
using the material witness law to justify preventive detention
in the future.
It marked the second time the Supreme Court has addressed a
civil lawsuit against Ashcroft for policies after Sept. 11.
In 2009, the court ruled that Ashcroft and FBI Director
Robert Mueller could not be held liable by a Pakistani man who
said he had been abused while imprisoned for more than a year
in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Supreme Court case is John Ashcroft v. Abdullah
al-Kidd, No. 10-98.
For Ashcroft: Acting Solicitor General Neal Kumar Katyal.
For al-Kidd: Lee Gelernt of the ACLU.
(Reporting by James Vicini)