High Court Scorns Porn Law

Internet Pornography, Porn, Web, Site AP

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law meant to punish pornographers who peddle dirty pictures to Web-surfing kids is probably an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.

The high court divided 5-to-4 over a law passed in 1998, signed by then-President Clinton and now backed by the Bush administration. The majority said a lower court was correct to block the law from taking effect because it likely violates the First Amendment.

The court did not end the long fight over the law, however. The majority sent the case back to a lower court for a trial that could give the government a chance to prove the law does not go too far.

The law, which never took effect, would have authorized fines up to $50,000 for the crime of placing material that is "harmful to minors" within the easy reach of children on the Internet.

"The court wants a trial to find out whether new technology can help the government meet its burden of blocking children from pornography without blocking adults from it, " said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "It the technology is there, the law has a chance. If not, it doesn't."

The decision in the online pornography case came as the Supreme Court wrapped up its term, and as the Bush administration was regrouping legally and politically after the court dealt a major setback to the government's anti-terrorism tactics since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The high court on Monday refused to endorse the White House claim of authority to seize and detain terrorism suspects and indefinitely deny access to courts or lawyers while interrogating them.

Monday's rulings in a trio of cases dealing with the rights of prisoners mean that detainees, whether potential terrorist threats or victims of circumstance, have greater rights to challenge their captivity in U.S. courts and force the government to explain itself.

"We are reviewing the court's decision to determine how to modify existing processes to satisfy the court's rulings," Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said.

In the short term, administration lawyers must prepare to fight scores of new court challenges filed on behalf of hundreds of detainees held more than two years at the Navy's prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The administration lost its high court argument that those detainees could not take their complaints to U.S. courts, because they are foreigners held on foreign soil. A 6-3 majority said the men may sue.

"The lesson of the decision is that there is no prison beyond the reach of domestic law," said Joe Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer who was lead counsel in the Supreme Court case on behalf of two Australian detainees and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

A number of questions remain about how cases will proceed and how the military will respond to lawyers' requests to meet with detainees. So far only four have been allowed to meet attorneys, and only three prisoners have been charged.

"Whatever we're told to do we'll do," said Army Lt. Col. Leon Sumpter, a spokesman at Guantanamo. "We'll definitely get guidance on how to implement that."

Soon, the administration will also return to federal courtrooms for new arguments in the cases of two American-born terror suspects whose cases challenged the premise that the war on terrorism required a new view of civil liberties.

The high court ruled 6-3 that Louisiana-born detainee Yaser Esam Hamdi can continue to argue for his freedom in court, repudiating administration arguments that presidential say-so was enough to keep Hamdi locked up without charges or trial.

"A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote.

The court declined to rule on the merits of a third case arising from the hunt for terrorists. The court sent back to a lower court the case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member and convert to Islam being held as an enemy combatant amid allegations he sought to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" and blow up apartment buildings in the United States.

The Bush administration contends that all the men at issue in Monday's cases are enemy combatants, an indistinct legal term. The administration claimed enemy combatants are neither prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions nor ordinary criminal suspects with automatic rights to see a lawyer and know the charges against them.

The Hamdi case included multiple holdings, and some unusual alliances among conservative and liberal justices.

Eight justices rejected the Bush administration's treatment of Hamdi on some grounds. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, by many measures the court's staunchest conservative, found no fault with the government.

In one bright spot for the government, a majority of five justices held that the president had authority to hold Hamdi as an enemy combatant.

The Padilla case ended Monday with what is at best an incremental victory for the government. Led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court voted 5-4 to throw out the lower court ruling on a technicality. The court's more liberal wing dissented.

Padilla may now refile his case and challenge the government on stronger legal footing, although several lawyers said the government may choose to file criminal charges instead.
  • Jarrett Murphy

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