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Ashcroft not liable in Muslim’s detention, Supreme Court rules

Justices agreed that Kidd’s suit could not go forward, but there was disagreement about the government’s action in the case. Justices agreed that Kidd’s suit could not go forward, but there was disagreement about the government’s action in the case.
Washington Post / June 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Former attorney general John Ashcroft cannot be sued for his role in detaining an American Muslim, even though the government did not charge the man with a crime or bring him as a witness in a terrorism investigation, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Justice Antonin Scalia said using the federal “material witness’’ statute to detain Abdullah al-Kidd as a material witness in a terrorism investigation does not give Kidd a right to sue, because no court precedent had found such a use of the statute unlawful. “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions,’’ Scalia wrote. “When properly applied it protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Ashcroft deserves neither label.’’

All eight justices hearing the case agreed that Kidd’s suit against Ashcroft could not go forward; Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case because she had worked on Ashcroft’s behalf as President Obama’s solicitor general. But there was disagreement about the government’s action in the case and the treatment Kidd received.

Kidd maintains that in his more than two weeks of detention, he was strip-searched, shackled, interrogated without an attorney present, and treated as a terrorist.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said Kidd’s ordeal “is a grim reminder of the need to install safeguards against disrespect for human dignity, constraints that will control officialdom even in perilous times.’’