DETROIT – Freedom of speech and freedom of the press won out when a federal district judge ruled late today that it is unconstitutional to block public access to immigration hearings. The decision ensures that legal proceedings of detainees around the nation will not be conducted in secret unless there is a particularly pressing need for secrecy in a given case, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In her opinion, Judge Nancy G. Edmunds wrote, “Openness is necessary for the public to maintain confidence in the value and soundness of the Governments actions, as secrecy only breeds suspicion as to why the Government is proceeding against Haddad and aliens like him.”

“Especially with the large Arab community in the Detroit area this victory is even more important,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.   “It’s crucial that hearings not be conducted under a veil of secrecy.”

The decision today was important for reasons beyond the issue of secrecy.  Lee Gelernt, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project staff counsel, who argued the case before the Court said, “The Court properly rejected the Justice Department's contention that the Judiciary should essentially look the other way when it comes to the government's September 11 policies.” 

The lawsuit filed by the national and state offices of the ACLU against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was on behalf of Representative John Conyers, Jr., the Detroit News, and the Metro Times, an alternative weekly after the public and the press were turned away from the deportation hearings in the case of Rabih Haddad, a Muslim community leader from Ann Arbor who co-founded an Islamic charity suspected of supporting terrorist activities.  Other defendants named in the suit are Michael Creppy, Chief Immigration Judge of the United States and Elizabeth Hacker, United States Immigration Judge. 

Congressman John Conyers, Jr. was elated by the judge's ruling. "This decision is a triumph for American democracy.  By upholding the principle of openness in judicial proceedings, Judge Edmunds has affirmed a basic tenet of our judicial process and struck a blow against the Bush Administration's ill-conceived policy of holding proceedings behind closed doors."

The case is Detroit News, Inc., et al v. Ashcroft et al., filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.  At issue is a policy set forth in a September 21, 2001 memo from Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy to all immigration judges requiring the closure of all proceedings to the public and the press, when directed by the Justice Department.  That policy was apparently invoked to close all deportation proceedings in Mr. Haddad’s case.

Mr. Haddad’s next deportation hearing is scheduled for April 10.  It is unknown at this time whether the Government will appeal this decision.

Read the legal complaint.