Rein in Ashcroft

In recent months, as the war in Afghanistan became the most entertaining news on the terrorism front, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s domestic anti-terrorism crusade largely dropped off the public’s radar. But the man who destroyed attorney-client privacy in federal prisons, ordered the “voluntary interrogations” of thousands, endeavored to shield government documents from Freedom of Information Act requests, turned the FBI loose to infiltrate religious organizations, restructured immigration appeals into a deportation assembly line and continues to hold prisoners incommunicado has not been idle. And Wednesday, he took a double-whammy in the federal courts.

First, U.S District Judge Robert Jones invalidated Ashcroft’s attempt to stop physician-assisted suicide in Oregon. That state’s voters twice approved a referendum legalizing the practice, making Oregon the only state with such a law. Despite promising Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers he would consider the state’s position, Ashcroft issued a directive declaring doctors who provided medicines for terminally ill people to end their lives risked their licenses because the prescriptions would not be for a “legitimate medical purpose.”

Jones’ scathing opinion rightly chastised Ashcroft for trying to “stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate” about physician-assisted suicide and held that federal prosecutors have no statutory authority to decide what constitutes “legitimate medical practices.” Bravo, Judge Jones, and for shame, John Ashcroft, for forcing an overworked federal court to waste time ruling on the obvious. The law on this intensely personal question that implicates some of society’s most fundamental values should be made by society’s collective conscience: the voters. Ashcroft’s directive struck against this democratic principle, went against his own party’s states’ rights leanings and, by overturning former Attorney General Janet Reno’s 1998 directive without public comment or notice to doctors, signaled physicians that even compliance with the law is no defense.

On the same day, a group of civil rights attorneys sued Ashcroft, alleging widespread abuse of the hundreds of Middle Eastern prisoners held in federal custody since the Sept. 11 attacks. The class action suit alleges guards often severely beat prisoners, including an Egyptian tourist arrested Sept. 30 and ordered deported but nonetheless imprisoned until March and, according to the suit, repeatedly beaten into unconsciousness. The suit came a day before the out-of-control Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered the names of those detainees kept secret.

Prisoners detained before trial are not convicts. They are entitled to lawyers, humane treatment and contact with their families. Even if one believes Ashcroft’s tall tale that non-citizens are not entitled to rights, the American justice system, for the preservation of its own principles, must grant all prisoners the freedoms inherent in the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”

These events, along with many before them, point to an attorney general who has lost his grasp of the foundations of the law he has sworn to uphold. The president should rein in his subordinate before he further tarnishes the administration’s image.