Constitution also protects suspected terrorists

By Kevin Leahy

Amidst the media storm surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an important legal development concerning every American’s civil liberties has gone mostly unnoticed.

In March, Judge Henry F. Floyd ruled the government had to either charge suspected terrorist Jose Padilla with a crime or let him go.

In doing so, Floyd reaffirmed a basic tenet of American liberty: every person has his or her day in court.

On Sept. 9, however, a three judge panel overturned Floyd’s ruling, and decided Pres. Bush indeed possesses the authority to hold Padilla indefinitely.

To review, Padilla is a bad guy; a former Chicago gang member and convicted murderer, Padilla was arrested three years ago on charges he was involved in a plot to detonate a “dirty bomb” – a radiological device – and has been held in a military prison ever since.

The government, however, has not produced any evidence to support its claims against him.

Regardless of the fact he is a convicted felon, Padilla is an American citizen; our Constitution demands we allow him to confront his accusers in court and answer the charges against him.

It may be easy for some to dismiss the Padilla case as another political yawn-fest that doesn’t really concern the average American. This case, however, not only cuts to the heart of our rights as Americans, but begs an important question: how much power ought we put in the hands of a single office, in the hands of a President?

Many of the founding fathers held that all governments tend toward corruption; that is why the Constitution they created separates the governing powers into three branches and puts into place checks and balances to ensure against the accumulation of too much power in the hands of any single branch.

Over the course of our nation’s history, however and especially in times of war, many of those checks and balances have been removed in an effort to “streamline” the executive decision-making process and aid the President in accomplishing his agenda. While many might see this as beneficial, it poses a tremendous risk to the health of our democracy.

If we allow the President to designate whomever he wants an an enemy combatant, then we have placed a tremendous amount of unchecked power in the hands of a single man.

History has shown us such power does real violence to the rule of law.

It is easy for all of us to be champions of civil liberties in peacetime; it doesn’t require any effort to perform as cheerleaders for the Constitution.

It is more difficult to argue in favor of the rights of a villain like Padilla, especially in wartime, when many of our rights are at risk of being eroded.

But Jose Padilla, low as he may be, is an American citizen, and his fate will have ramifications across the legal landscape.

To paraphrase the President’s favorite philosopher: whatsoever the government does to the least of us, so they do unto us all.

Columns reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Northern Star staff.