The Supreme Court had grounds for declining this week to take up the case of Jose Padilla, an American citizen whom the Bush administration has locked up in solitary confinement without charge or trial since 2002, much of that time without access to a lawyer.

Padilla’s case is still before a U.S. appeals court, where arguments are scheduled for next month. If the circuit, as a district court already has done, rules against the administration, the Justice Department will almost certainly appeal, and the Supreme Court should then take up Padilla’s case on an expedited basis. He has been jerked around by the legal system long enough. Last year, Padilla finally reached the Supreme Court, only to have the case thrown out because it had been filed in the wrong jurisdiction.

Mind you, these proceedings do not speak to his guilt or innocence on murky allegations that after training with al Qaeda he returned to this country planning to detonate a “dirty bomb” or maybe blow up some apartment buildings.

What his lawyers are arguing for is Padilla’s fundamental constitutional right to contest these charges in open court, a right the administration has denied him. The Justice Department argues that any American the president designates as an enemy combatant can be held indefinitely with no recourse to civil liberties.

When the Supreme Court in a separate case said a U.S.-born Saudi held in the same military prison as Padilla, and also designated an enemy combatant could challenge his detention before a U.S. judge, the administration quickly let him return to Saudi Arabia.

Padilla’s lawyers made a good point to the Supreme Court: “Delay increases the chance that Padilla could be faced with an unconstitutionally coerced choice 0 for example, whether to plead guilty to a crime or give up other rights in order to avoid further months of detention as an enemy combatant.”

In other words, after more than three years in solitary who knows what this guy might sign, say or do if federal prosecutors leaned hard enough on him and there was no trial in sight. What kind of credibility would that have? Forget what the precedent would do to the Constitution.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)