High court rejects claims against Ashcroft

By Joan Biskupic |

WASHINGTON – A closely divided Supreme Court on Monday threw out a Pakistani man’s civil rights claim against former attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller for abusive treatment he says he received when arrested with other Muslims in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The court voted 5-4 – with the more conservative justices in the majority – that the man failed to present enough facts early in the case that his treatment in detention arose from policies Ashcroft and Mueller created and directed that discriminated based on race or religion. The more liberal justices dissented, saying the former detainee had made concrete allegations and the majority’s standard could make it harder for victims of government wrongdoing to bring claims of constitutional violations.

Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim working as a cable television installer on Long Island, was arrested by federal agents at his home in late 2001 and held for several months at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Iqbal was among hundreds picked up and questioned in the New York area as possibly connected to the attacks.

Iqbal, charged with fraud related to his identification papers, says he was designated a person of “high interest” and transferred to a special detention unit solely because of his race and religion. He says he was subjected to harsher conditions, including abusive strip searches and beatings.

A 2003 Department of Justice inspector general report found widespread abuse of detainees at the Brooklyn center, and numerous individual lawsuits related to treatment there are pending.

Iqbal, who was deported to Pakistan, sued 34 current and former federal officials and 19 prison officers. Monday’s case involved only the claim against Ashcroft and Mueller. Iqbal says that they were the architects of policies that labeled Muslims persons “of high interest” and that they knew of abusive conditions such men faced.

The case centered on how much information Iqbal had to produce to have his case against Ashcroft and Mueller heard. Lower federal courts had ruled that his claim could go forward.

The high court disagreed, saying Iqbal failed to bring forth enough facts for a claim of purposeful and unlawful discrimination. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that Iqbal must show the officials targeted people solely for reasons of race and religion, rather than for neutral, investigative reasons.

Kennedy noted that the Sept. 11 attacks were committed by 19 Arab Muslim hijackers and said, “It should come as no surprise that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the purpose of the policy was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims.”

The justices said a lower court could decide to allow Iqbal to try to amend his claim by producing more information that showed Muslims were unfairly targeted. Iqbal’s lawyer, Alexander Reinert, said Monday he believed he could bring a stronger case, as required by the high court.

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justice David Souter wrote for the dissenters.