LOS ANGELES — A federal judge struck down President Bush’s authority to designate groups as terrorists, saying portions of a post-Sept. 11 executive order were unconstitutionally vague.
Some parts of the Sept. 24, 2001, order tagging 27 groups and individuals as “specially designated global terrorists” were too vague and could impinge on First Amendment rights of free association, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said.
The order gave the president “unfettered discretion” to label groups without giving them a way to challenge the designations, she said in a Nov. 21 ruling that was made public yesterday.
The judge’s ruling was a reversal of her own tentative findings last July in which she indicated she would uphold wide powers asserted by Bush under an anti-terror financing law. She delayed her ruling then to allow more legal briefs to be filed.
The long-running litigation has centered on two groups, the Liberation Tigers, which seeks a separate homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, a political organization representing the interests of Kurds in Turkey.
Both groups have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations.
The judge’s 45-page ruling in Humanitarian Law Project v. U.S. Department of Treasury granted in part and denied in part a legal challenge brought by the Humanitarian Law Project, which seeks to provide training to the groups in human rights advocacy and provide them with humanitarian aid.
The judge outlined the history of Bush’s Executive Order 13224 issued under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He declared then that the “grave acts of terrorism” and the “continuing and immediate threat of future attacks” constituted a national emergency.
He blocked all property and interests in property of 27 groups or individuals named as “specially designated global terrorists (SDGT).” Bush also authorized the secretary of the treasury to designate anyone who “assists, sponsors or provides services to” or is “otherwise associated with” a designated group.
Collins found that Bush’s authority to designate SDGTs is “unconstitutionally vague on its face.” She also found that the provision involving those “otherwise associated with” the groups is vague and overbroad and could impinge on First Amendment rights of free association. She struck down both provisions.
However, she let stand sections of the order that would penalize those who provide “services” to designated terrorist groups. She said such services would include the humanitarian aid and rights training proposed by the plaintiffs.
The ruling was praised by David Cole, a lawyer for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented the plaintiff Humanitarian Law Project.
“This law gave the president unfettered authority to create blacklists,” he said. “It was reminiscent of the McCarthy era.”
Cole said the Humanitarian Law Project would appeal those portions of the executive order that were allowed to stand. He said the judge’s ruling does not invalidate the hundreds of SDGT designations already made but “calls them into question.”
A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman had a mixed reaction to the judge’s ruling.
“We are pleased the court rejected many of the constitutional arguments raised by the plaintiffs, including their challenge to the government’s ban on providing services to terrorist organizations,” Justice spokesman Charles Miller said yesterday. “However, we believe the court erred in finding that certain other aspects of the executive order were unconstitutional.”
In 2004, Collins ruled that portions of the Patriot Act were too vague, and, even after Congress amended the Patriot Act in 2005, she ruled the provisions remained too vague to be understood by a person of average intelligence and were therefore unconstitutional.
Cole said the value of the current decision is it “says that even in fighting terrorism the president cannot be given a blank check to blacklist anyone he considers a bad guy or a bad group and you can’t imply guilt by association.”