Today, a federal judge in Miami sentenced Jose Padilla to 17 years. The sentence may be a personal defeat for Padilla; but it is a resounding blow to the current administration’s contention that the American criminal justice system cannot handle terrorism cases.
In May 2002, the FBI arrested Padilla, an American citizen, at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The government suspected that Padilla was plotting to explode a “dirty bomb” of radioactive material. But instead of charging Padilla with a crime, the Administration took the unprecedented step of declaring him an “enemy combatant” and imprisoning him without charge at a navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The government then held Padilla incommunicado and denied him access to his (or any) lawyer or the courts in which he might challenge the accusations against him. Padilla says he was exposed to extreme cold and subject to extreme sense deprivations and other coercive treatment.
In November 2005, after 3 ½ years of military detention, the government brought terrorism-related charges against Padilla. Two things about the indictment stood out. First, the indictment against Padilla made no mention of any plot to explode dirty bombs or blow up apartment buildings. Unnamed government officials suggest there may have been good reason to keep this seemingly germane allegation out of the indictment, namely, that information about the bomb plot was obtained by torture. Secondly, the indictment came down just two days before the government was due to respond to Padilla’s appeal to the Supreme Court. An obvious inference arises: the government feared that the Court would reject its claim that the president could seize people in the United States, designate them “enemy combatants,” and lock them up indefinitely and without charges.
Today’s sentence highlights why the federal courts are equipped to deal with terrorism cases. Padilla’s sentence was no mere slap on the wrist, but a signal that judges don’t coddle terrorists. It shows there is no need to establish an alternative detention system for “enemy combatants.” The Administration’s approach – and continued insistence on the need for special courts to adjudicate cases against our enemies – is not simply unnecessary. The Administration’s view violates the spirit and principles of American justice. It undercuts our commitment to constitutional safeguards and has undermined our moral credibility throughout the world. Padilla’s 17-year sentence serves as a needed reminder: our existing legal system is well-equipped to handle cases like these. There is neither need nor reason to abandon the principles on which this system was founded and which continue to make American democracy worth defending.