The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 on Tuesday that former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be sued by an American citizen who was held as a material witness for 16 days in what he asserts were poor conditions after the 9/11 attacks, but was never called as a witness after all.
The ruling, which went against Abdullah al-Kidd, held that Ashcroft, and by extension other federal officials, enjoy “qualified immunity” that gives them “breathing room” when they make honest mistakes. The justices overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which had upheld a lower court ruling denying Ashcroft’s motion to throw out the suit.
The authorities seized al-Kidd as he was about to board a plane for Saudi Arabia in March 23. At the time, they said he might be needed to testify against Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a native of Saudi Arabia who was accused of running websites that supported terrorism. Al-Hussayen, a former computer science graduate student at the University of Idaho, was acquitted.
The controlling Supreme Court opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who cited precedent that qualified immunity, properly applied, protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Scalia said there was no need to address the more difficult issue of whether Ashcroft should enjoy “absolute immunity.”
Although the eight justices were united in their conclusion that Ashcroft enjoyed qualified immunity, there was sharp disagreement on other aspects of the case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she was troubled by the “harsh custodial conditions” that al-Kidd endured.
Scalia, who delights in throwing verbal darts at his colleagues, scoffed at some other conclusions by Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayer, calling them “beside the point.”
Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the case, since she served as Solicitor General under President Barack Obama.