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To the Editor:

The latest court maneuvering over the fate of U.S. citizens who have been classified by the Bush Administration as so-called “enemy combatants” (“Public Defender Denied for Suspected American Taliban,” June 26) should frighten every American. In ruling that a public defender cannot represent Yaser Hamdi, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dealt a blow to the basic constitutional rights of all Americans. But it is the comments that Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson made during oral arguments in that case that are the most troubling.

Judge Wilkinson suggested that a U.S. citizen, whom the executive branch has classified as an “enemy combatant,” has no constitutional rights and can be detained indefinitely with no access to a lawyer or other basic protections. If this were the case, detainees would not even have meaningful way to challenge the very classification as an enemy combatant. And that would mean that the Administration would have free reign to arbitrarily detain any U.S. citizen for any reason – without having to bother with lawyers, trials or due process – simply by labeling the person an “enemy combatant.” The United States Constitution was not drafted to be so easily and arbitrarily circumvented.

The tragedy of September 11 does not mean that cowardly judges must abdicate the obligation and responsibility of the judiciary to act as a check on the power of the executive branch. Today, these fundamental rights are denied to Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. Tomorrow, if the views of Judge Wilkinson and the Bush Administration prevail, these rights could be denied to any of us.