By Bill Mears
A federal judge used tough language to block efforts by the Obama administration to limit the legal rights of terror suspects held at the GuantanamoBay military prison inCuba, ruling Thursday that proposed changes were an "illegitimate exercise of executive power."
Officials of the departments of Justice and Defense had claimed they alone should decide when the prisoners deserve regular access to their attorneys.
But in a 32-page ruling, Judge Royce Lamberth said federal courts had proper authority to decide the matter, and criticized the executive branch for recently changing the procedures, when he said the current system was working well.
"The old maxim 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' would seem to caution against altering a counsel-access regime that has proven safe, efficient, and eminently workable," said Lamberth. "Indeed," he added, "the government had no answer when the court posed this question in oral arguments" last month.
"Access to the courts means nothing without access to counsel," added the judge.
Justice Department lawyers said they have started restricting when Guantanamo prisoners could challenge their detention in the Washington-based federal court. If approved, any relaxing of the rules would be made on a case-by-case basis at the exclusive discretion of military officials, not by the courts.