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Justice Department Trashing The Constitution

Justice Department Trashing the Constitution

Making Sense By Michael Reagan

I think John Ashcroft has lost his mind. Take the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, an al Qaeda member and allegedly the 20th 9/11 hijacker.

The Justice Department decided to try him in a civil court for his part in that disaster. If you are going to try somebody in a civil court, however, the defendant has certain rights under our Constitution, one of them being the 6th Amendment right to call witnesses on your behalf who might help your case.

Moussaoui, acting as his own attorney but advised by a battery of lawyers, decided he wanted to call someone to testify in his behalf who the government had in custody. The feds had leaked information the man had given them about Moussaoui and he wanted to call al-Qaida prisoner Ramzi bin al-Shibh, now incarcerated in an unknown location, and question him about what he had told the government.

But Ashcroft's Justice Department, which is supposed to be the upholder of the Constitution and the protector of the rights of defendants, said they would not allow Moussaoui access to the witness he was entitled under the Constitution to call.

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., has ruled that Moussaoui can question the al-Qaida prisoner. The government, however, has refused to allow testimony, in person or via video conference, from al-Shibh, a confessed plotter in the Sept. 11 attacks who is being held in a secret location abroad.

The prosecutors insist that testimony in open court from al-Shibh could reveal classified information and harm national security, but many legal experts say that the real danger is the damage the prosecutor's defiance may cause to the authority of the judicial system in terrorist cases. Moreover, Justice Department lawyers admit that their defiance of the court could result in a dismissal of the charges against Moussaoui.

In that event, prosecutors might try Moussaoui in a military tribunal, where he would have fewer rights and protections, and some say that's what the feds really want.

The government's defiance "not only threatens to make [federal courts] irrelevant but also undermines the judicial system as an equal branch of government," Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and an authority on military law told the Baltimore Sun.

This is outrageous. One of the things we Americans pride ourselves about is our fairness -- our court system, our trial system. We tell the world ours is better than anybody's. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. Yet here we have the Justice Department walking all over the Constitutional rights of a defendant.

Just what does it tell the world when the Attorney General of the United States decides that his department will not allow a defendant they want to try, and condemn to death if he's found guilty, to exercise his rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution?

It's not that Moussaoui doesn't deserve to be punished for the part he allegedly played in the 9/11 massacre, but his guilt does not cancel out the rights he's guaranteed under the Constitution.

Aside from Ashcroft's scorning the Constitution in this case, what also shocks me is the silence from conservatives who should be shouting about this case from the rooftops and especially my colleagues on talk radio.

Imagine if this was happening while Bill Clinton was still in the White House and Janet Reno was still Attorney General -- Conservatives all over America would be up in arms and screaming about this sordid example of the government riding roughshod over the rights of a criminal defendant.

Regardless of how much Moussaoui deserves the worst punishment we can give him, he still has the right to avail himself of the Constitutional protections afforded all defendants.

We need to keep in mind that the power to strip him of his rights is also the power to strip us of our rights.

Mike Reagan, the eldest son of President Ronald Reagan, is heard on more than 200 talk radio stations nationally as part of the Premiere Radio Network. Comments to mereagan@hotmail.comfor Mike.

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