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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002
As more than a casual observer of Attorney General John Ashcroft since he took office a year ago, I believe the man fancies himself the embodiment of Plato's Philosopher King. Ashcroft sees himself as blessed with the insight to know better than anyone what is best for society and therefore believes it appropriate to bestow upon himself absolute power.
Especially since Sept. 11, Ashcroft's unilateralist fingerprints can be found all over national policy. From his insistence that the Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo not be subject to international law to his suggestion before Congress that anyone who questions his amassing of unchecked investigative authority is assisting terrorists, Ashcroft has used this national emergency to consolidate power in the executive branch and his office in particular.
No group knows this better than immigrants. There are about 460 immigrants picked up during the sweeps since Sept. 11 who are still sitting in jails and detention centers awaiting deportion, criminal trials or release. Only a relative handful have been accused of being part of the terrorist attacks; most are there on technical immigration violations. Even so, Ashcroft refuses to release any information on their identity or fate, repeatedly defying members of Congress who have written him for an accounting.
Philosopher kings aren't answerable to anyone.
Ashcroft's power grab is even creating a pall of repression over his own ranks. The nation's 221 immigration judges have petitioned Congress to get out from under the attorney general's rule. They say, in a report issued in January, that an independent immigration court under a separate executive branch agency, as opposed to being an arm of the Justice Department, is the only way to restore public confidence in the impartiality of immigration hearings.
Since the terror attacks, Ashcroft has taken a series of actions that remind us of the attorney general's conflicting roles as head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the immigration courts -- meaning he is both chief prosecutor and chief judge. Ashcroft closed the records and barred the public from the immigration court proceedings for all Sept. 11 detainees -- a determination that used to be made on a case-by-case basis by immigration judges -- and he gave INS attorneys the option of keeping immigrants imprisoned indefinitely even after an immigration judge has ordered them freed for lack of evidence. In their report to Congress, the immigration judges say these emasculating measures, as well as others over the past 20 years, point up the "inherent conflict of interest caused by housing the Immigration Court within DOJ."
But Dan Nelson, a spokesperson for DOJ, said the department would not support an independent immigration court system. "Principally because the immigration courts and Board of Immigration Appeals exercise the authority of the attorney general to enforce the immigration laws of the United States," Nelson told the Los Angeles Times. In other words, Ashcroft doesn't want objective and impartial immigration courts. He wants puppets.
What philosopher king wouldn't?
Immigration Judge Dana Marks Keener, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, is careful to say her organization doesn't "think it's productive to make this a personal attack on the attorney general." She points to a bipartisan, congressionally appointed commission report released in 1997 that recommends the removal of the immigration courts from DOJ control and notes that the issue has been kicking around for years. Her group decided to press the issue now, she says, because the administration has announced plans to reorganize the INS and possibly the DOJ.
Very politic. But really, who would blame the immigration judges for being worried about their judicial independence with Ashcroft trolling for power? They must have watched in horror when, in the first antiterrorism bill Ashcroft brought before Congress, he proposed giving himself the authority to indefinitely detain any non-citizen he believed may endanger the national security. The measure specifically stripped the immigration courts of any authority to review the legitimacy of the detention. Even a rah-rah Congress couldn't stomach that one.
Now, as a way of addressing a 55,000-case backlog, Ashcroft has proposed slashing the number of appellate immigration judges from 23 to 11. Under the plan, most appeals will no longer be heard by a three-judge panel but by a single judge (which is supposed to explain why cutting court personnel by more than 50 percent will reduce a backlog). The changes will adversely impact due process rights while tightening Ashcroft's grip over the immigration court's decisionmakers.
Plato envisioned an enlightened despot of vigorous intellect making decisions for the good of society. But history tells us that men who believe they belong in that role shouldn't have it. Ashcroft may see himself as a modern incarnation of the philosopher king, but that's only because he is looking into a very warped mirror.