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Courts Rebuke Bush On Detainees

The Bush administration suffered two big legal setbacks Thursday as a pair of federal appeals courts ruled against the way the government is handling terror suspects. In both cases, the courts decided the administration was denying the suspects their rights.

First, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart, came an order from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to release accused "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla from a military prison, or charge him in a civilian court.

Padilla, an American citizen and former gang member before he allegedly joined al Qaeda and plotted to set off a radiological bomb in the U.S., was arrested last year trying to re-enter the country.

Designated an "enemy combatant" by Mr. Bush, Padilla has never been charged and has met only briefly with a lawyer.

The ruling said "presidential authority does not exist in a vacuum, and this case involves not whether those responsibilities should be aggressively pursued, but whether the president is obligated, in the circumstances presented here, to share them with Congress," it added.

The White House called the Padilla order "troubling and flawed" and vowed to fight it.

"Let's remember what we're talking about. We're talking about an individual who was involved in seeking to do harm to the American people," said White House spokesman Scott McCellan.

Then, less than three hours later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' in San Francisco weighed in on the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, ordering that the 660 prisoners there should have access to lawyers and the American court system.

And that was on top of a recent decision by the Supreme Court to hear arguments on similar questions. Put it all together, say analysts, and it's a huge legal defeat.

"The courts are beginning to really step up to the plate and question the legitimacy of these very broad assertions of power on behalf of the government," said David Cole of Georgetown Law School.

It's been an especially embarrassing week, too, for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was personally rebuked by a Detroit federal judge for violating a gag order in a terror trial there.

Judge Gerald Rosen "sanctioned" Ashcroft for his statements, calling them "serious transgressions." Ashcroft apologized.

Almost lost in the mix was a Syracuse University study which found the Justice Department has "tried 184 people on terrorism charges since 9-11," but has managed to get a "median prison term of just 14 days", and in "some cases, no jail time at all."

Civil libertarians are calling the Padilla ruling especially "historic" but admit it's not conclusive and no one expects him to walk free soon.

The ruling could have ramifications for the so-called "20th hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui.

A federal court has ruled the administration must allow Moussaoui to interview al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody, whom he says might clear him of capital charges. The government refuses, citing national security concerns.

If higher courts uphold Moussaoui's right to question al Qaeda detainees, it is possible the government will name him an enemy combatant and remove him from the civilian courts.

The ruling on the Guantanamo detainees comes on a petition from a relative of a Libyan the U.S. military captured in Afghanistan. The court said the Bush administration's indefinite detention of the men runs contrary to American ideals.

"Even in times of national emergency - indeed, particularly in such times - it is the obligation of the Judicial Branch to ensure the preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the Executive Branch from running roughshod over the rights of citizens and aliens alike," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority.

"We cannot simply accept the government's position," Reinhardt continued, "that the Executive Branch possesses the unchecked authority to imprison indefinitely any persons, foreign citizens included, on territory under the sole jurisdiction and control of the United States, without permitting such prisoners recourse of any kind to any judicial forum, or even access to counsel, regardless of the length or manner of their confinement.''

The Supreme Court last month agreed to decide whether the Guantanamo detainees, picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, should have access to the courts. The justices agreed to hear that case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the prisoners had no rights to the American legal system.

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