Yoo Entitled to Immunity From Padilla Lawsuit, Court Rules

John Yoo, an ex-U.S. Justice Department attorney who wrote memos justifying harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists, won dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an ex-detainee alleging physical abuse, a federal appeals court ruled.

Yoo, a former George W. Bush administration lawyer, was sued in 2008 by Jose Padilla, detained for three years in the U.S. as an enemy combatant and convicted of supporting terrorists and conspiring to commit murder. Padilla, who claims he was subjected to physical abuse, said Yoo was responsible for violating his constitutional rights.

Yoo was Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco said today Yoo had qualified immunity from the lawsuit because it wasn’t clear at the time he acted that Padilla was entitled to the same constitutional protections as an ordinary convicted prisoner.

It also “was not clearly established in 2001-03” that Padilla’s alleged treatment was torture, a three-judge panel of the court said in a unanimous decision. The ruling overturns a decision by a federal judge in San Francisco who refused to dismiss Padilla’s lawsuit. Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil lawsuits if their conduct doesn’t violate a clearly established constitutional right that a reasonable person should have known.

Reviewing Options

Padilla’s attorney, Jonathan Freiman, said he’s reviewing options on whether to appeal further.

“Incommunicado detention, brutal treatment and death threats do not represent American values and are universally condemned,” Freiman said in an e-mail. “Hopefully no one else will face the horror that Mr. Padilla and his family have faced. The law should guarantee that, and the Ninth Circuit erred it concluding that Mr. Yoo’s actions were not ‘‘beyond debate.’’

Yoo allegedly created a 2002 memo concluding that interrogations must cause ‘‘death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function’’ to be considered torture, according to Padilla’s complaint.

Enemy Combatant

Padilla was declared an enemy combatant closely associated with al-Qaeda and held in military custody in a South Carolina brig for more than 3 1/2 years. Padilla alleged he was subject to abuses that mirror those at a Guantanamo Bay detainee prison, including extreme isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures and interrogation under threat of torture.

The ruling is in keeping with a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that a man detained without charge for 16 days couldn’t sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

‘‘We cannot agree with the plaintiffs that he was just another detainee -- or that it would necessarily have been ‘apparent’ to someone in Yoo’s position that Padilla was entitled to the same constitutional protections as an ordinary convicted prisoner or accused criminal,” the panel said today. “An official could have had some reason to believe that Padilla’s harsh treatment fell within constitutional bounds.”

The justices said they weren’t deciding whether Padilla’s allegations about his treatment or the government’s allegations about Padilla were true

The ruling “confirms that this litigation has been baseless from the outset,” said Miguel Estrada, Yoo’s attorney. “For several years, Padilla and his attorneys have been harassing the government officials he believes to have been responsible for his detention, and ultimately, conviction, as a terrorist. He has now lost before two separate courts of appeals, and will need to find a new hobby for his remaining time in prison.”

The case is Padilla v. Yoo, 09-16478, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (San Francisco). The lower-court case is Padilla v. Yoo, 08-00035, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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