Civil rights groups, newspapers win round in effort to open deportation hearings
By The Associated Press
NEWARK, N.J. The government has been barred from enforcing its blanket policy on secret deportation hearings for immigrants detained in the terrorism investigation.
Chief U.S. District Judge John W. Bissell granted a preliminary injunction in the case yesterday, ruling that such hearings may only be closed on a case-by-case basis by the judge conducting the proceeding.
Civil rights groups and two newspapers had requested the injunction.
In a Sept. 21 memorandum, the nation's chief immigration judge, Michael Creppy, directed immigration judges to close hearings involving detainees whose cases have been designated of "special interest" to the FBI. The memo also prohibited court administrators from listing the cases on dockets, or confirming when hearings are to be held.
"Without an injunction, the government could continue to bar the public and press from deportation proceedings without any particularized showing of justification. This presents a clear case of irreparable harm to a right protected by the First Amendment," Bissell wrote.
The Justice Department has not decided whether to appeal, spokesman Charles Miller said.
In a statement, the department said: "The closure of these hearings is vital to the ongoing efforts of law enforcement to take reasonable but necessary steps to protect our national security."
As of yesterday, 104 post-Sept. 11 detainees were in custody around the nation, down from more than 700, said Justice Department spokesman Dan Nelson. Most have been held in county jails in New Jersey. It was unclear how many have been deported.
Bissell acted on a lawsuit that was filed March 6 by the Newark chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York-based Center For Constitutional Rights on behalf of the New Jersey Law Journal, a weekly publication, and North Jersey Media Group, publisher of the Herald News of West Paterson, a daily newspaper.
The newspapers' reporters tried to cover hearings involving detainees, but were barred from courtrooms, along with the rest of the public.
"As important as the war on terrorism is, it doesn't supersede our constitutional rights," Lawrence Lustberg, a lawyer for the newspapers, said yesterday.
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