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Detainee case judge challenged

A federal judge, quoted as publicly expressing anxiety that he may make a mistake in a detainee case and free a dangerous terrorist, now faces a formal demand that he step aside from Guantanamo cases.  The recusal motion was filed last week naming Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of U.S. District Court following remarks calling for new detention legislation and arguing that Congress was “better suited” than the courts to resolve the detainee situation.  The motion, filed last Friday, can be found here.

The motion was filed by lawyers for Abdal Razak Ali, a Libyan captured in Pakistan, who has been held at Guantanamo for more than seven years.  Ali’s challenge to his detention was one of eight cases transferred to Judge Lamberth last April from another District judge (District Court docket 09-745).  From all appearances, Ali’s case has been unfolding in much the same fashion as other Guantanamo cases.

Judge Lamberth’s quoted remarks about the difficulty of processing these habeas cases came amid a series of public comments by three of his colleagues and a judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, suggesting that Congress step in to provide new guidance on detention authority.  The recusal motion included a news story by the organization ProPublica, discussing some of those remarks.  (This blog recently discussed this public debate, in this post.)

The motion focused on several of the quotations attributed to Judge Lamberth, including this one: “How confident can I be that if I make the wrong choice that he [a detainee] won’t be the one that blows up the Washington Monument or the Capitol?”  He also was quoted as suggesting new legislation to define “indefinite detention.”

Ali’s lawyers said the remarks “echo a current political debate…that questions whether or not our federal courts can fairly and adequately adjudicate habeas corpus claims from men in [Ali’s] position.  Even as indicated in the very same news article, large portions of the public simply believe that everyone who is or has been detained at Guantanamo Bay is a terrorist, notwithstanding that in the vast majority of cases, the Government or the courts have concluded otherwise.”

By taking part in that debate, the motion argued, Lamberth had sent a signal “that these cases could well be too difficult for the judiciary because of this Court’s own expressed fear of some catastrophic terrorist act committed in the indefinite future by someone whose petition it grants.”  His remarks bear on the merits of Ali’s case and its possible disposition, it contended, putting the judge’s impartiality “in question.”

The Justice Department will have the option of answering the motion.