WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear appeals from former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and other former federal officials seeking to shut down lawsuits filed by Muslim and Arab men who were detained in the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The justices said they will review an appeals court ruling that gave a green a light to the lawsuit claiming that Ashcroft, Mueller and the others should be held accountable for the harsh treatment the men suffered in the months after the worst attacks in U.S. history. The former officials argue they cannot be sued or held liable.
The court also said it will hear a separate appeal about access to the courts from the family of a Mexican teenager who was killed when a U.S. Border Patrol agent fired across the border from Texas into Mexico. The case involves the rights of people who are harmed by American authorities on foreign soil to have their day in U.S. courts.
In the detainees case, the Obama administration is defending Ashcroft, Mueller, James Ziglar, the former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the warden and associate warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn where more than 80 men were held, many of them charged only with minor civil immigration violations.
A divided panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said the men were detained "as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim."
The appeals court said that "the suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9-11 is not without a remedy."
The new appeal, stemming from a class-action lawsuit that was originally filed in 2002, is the third time the court has intervened in lawsuits against Ashcroft and others from Muslims who were arrested in the U.S. following the 2001 attacks. The justices have twice sided with Ashcroft.
Only six justices will take part because Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a member of the New York-based federal appeals court that heard an earlier version of the case and Justice Elena Kagan worked on the issue when she served in the Justice Department. One seat on the nine-member court has been empty since Justice Antonin Scalia died in February.
Arguments probably will take place in January so it is possible that a new justice will by then be in place. President Barack Obama has nominated Judge Merrick Garland, but Senate Republicans have so far blocked action on the nomination.
In the cross-border shooting case, the federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled that the parents of 15-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca could not sue the agent who killed him in 2010.
The Obama administration, while calling the death tragic, urged the justices to stay out of the case.
Investigators said U.S. Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa Jr. fired his weapon across the Rio Grande because he was attacked by people throwing rocks. Mesa was trying to arrest immigrants who crossed illegally into the United States. The teen's parents say he and his friends were playing a game in the concrete culvert that separates El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico when Mesa shot him.
The case turned on whether Mesa could be sued in U.S. courts when the family and the victim are Mexican, and the injury occurred in Mexico.
A district court judge first ruled that Mesa could not be sued in federal court. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals initially held that Mesa could be sued.
But the full New Orleans-based appeals court ruled unanimously in favour of the U.S. agent.
The case also probably will be argued in January.