High-ranking U.S. government officials usually are protected from claims that they violated a person’s civil rights. In lawsuits stemming from law enforcement and intelligence efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, however, three federal courts have left open the possibility that former Attorney General John Ashcroft and a hard-line lieutenant may be held personally liable.

In two cases, judges appointed by Republican presidents have refused to dismiss lawsuits at an early stage that were filed against Ashcroft and former Justice Department official John Yoo. One complaint challenges Ashcroft’s strategy of preventive detention. The other seeks to hold Yoo accountable for legal memos he wrote that supported detention, interrogation and presidential power.