Friday, June 27, 2008
Constitutional law for government officials
Maybe everybody who works for the U.S. government should be required to take a refresher course on the Bill of Rights, from the president on down. They've all probably heard of it -- free speech, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable searches, innocent until proven guilty and considerably more -- but they've apparently never really thought about what it all means. That's probably why the president, vice president and members of Congress have been so quick to deny individual liberties to so many individuals since Sept. 11, 2001. This issue returned to the news Friday when the Justice Department agreed to pay millions of dollars to a former Army scientist accused of responsibility for the anthrax mailings that killed five people after the attacks on New York and Washington. The scientist, Dr. Stephen Hatfill, a bioterrorism expert, was called a "person of interest" in the mailings by federal officials, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, in 2002, according to the Reuters international news service. After an extensive investigation, which included 24-hour surveillance, Hatfield was never arrested or charged. He sued the government for violating his privacy and ruining his reputation in 2003. The judge presiding over the lawsuit, which stretched on for years, said there is "not a scintilla of evidence" that linked Hatfield to the anthrax mailings. No one has ever been charged in the case. Curiously, the phrase "presumption of innocence" for people accused of crimes actually does not appear in the U.S. Constitution but comes from a seminal 1895 Supreme Court decision, Coffin v. United States.