Federal appeals court reverses ruling limiting indefinite detention

A federal appeals court reversed a lower court decision that found portions of a U.S. law allowing indefinite detention for terror suspects unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned the injunction preventing indefinite detention of terror suspects who are considered “associated forces” of al Qaeda.

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Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act’s (NDAA) provisions allowing indefinite detention of associated forces was unconstitutional because the language was vague and could lead to the detention of American citizens.

The appellate court dismissed that ruling because it determined that the plaintiffs in the case, both American citizens and non-Americans, did not have standing to challenge the law.

“We conclude that [the NDAA’s] Section 1021 has no bearing on the government’s authority to detain the American citizen plaintiffs and that those plaintiffs therefore lack Article III standing,” the panel wrote in its 60-page decision. “Moreover, the non-citizen plaintiffs have failed to establish a sufficient basis to fear detention under the statute to give them standing to seek preenforcement review.”

As a result, the court said that it was not addressing the constitutional claims raised in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 by a group of journalists, writers and activists led by former New York Times reporter Christopher Hedges. They filed suit alleging that the 2012 NDAA violated their First Amendment rights because they could be subject to indefinite detention under the law.

New York District Court Judge Katherine Forrest agreed, ruling that parts of the NDAA’s Section 1021 were unconstitutional because the language allowing the detention of those who “substantially supported” al Qaeda or “associated forces” was overly vague.

“In the face of what could be indeterminate military detention, due process requires more," Forrest said.

Forrest subsequently went a step further, stating that the injunction applied to everyone, not just the plaintiffs.

But the Second Circuit stayed that decision soon after, before ultimately striking down the injunction on Wednesday.

The Obama administration fought against the Hedges lawsuit despite arguing that the detention provisions were unnecessary when the law was being debated — and threatening to veto the larger Pentagon policy bill as a result.

During oral arguments in February, the administration teamed up with lawyers for Republican defense hawks Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) to defend the law.

There has been considerable debate since the law passed as to whether it gave the president the ability to detain American citizens in military custody indefinitely.

Supporters of military detention argue that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force allowed U.S. terror suspects to be detained, while critics say the 2012 NDAA granted the authority to the executive branch and have fought to repeal it.

The language, however, contained a compromise provision added at the eleventh hour by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that said nothing in the law “shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.”

As a result, the Second Circuit wrote that the law “simply says nothing at all” with respect to U.S. citizens or those captured on U.S. soil.