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In a blow to the Justice Department’s post-Sept. 11 efforts to secretly detain terrorism suspects, a federal appeals court refused to block public access to certain immigration hearings. The ruling Monday by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lets stand — at least for now — the May 29 decision by U.S. District Judge John W. Bissell of the District of New Jersey overturning a ban on public immigration hearings for those designated of “special interest” to the FBI. Bissell had ruled the government could hold the hearings in secret only if it could prove public access would harm an ongoing terrorism investigation. Justice Department lawyers sought a stay of Bissell’s order while the case worked through the courts. While the appeals panel denied that request, it did grant the government a fast hearing on its appeal of Bissell’s ruling, meaning oral arguments on the case could be heard within a few months. The Justice Department could also appeal the denial of a stay. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department has tried to bar the public and reporters from many immigration hearings, arguing public disclosure would compromise national security. Media organizations around the country have filed suits to reopen the proceedings. Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said the government’s attempts to close hearings violate immigrants’ rights to an open court process. They said that even immigrants not involved in terrorism could find their cases labeled of “special interest” to the FBI. “We have never taken the position that they shouldn’t be allowed to close particular hearings, if they have a reason,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said Tuesday. “What we oppose is a blanket closure order that would close every hearing.” The nation’s chief immigration judge, Michael Creppy, had issued a memo on Sept. 21 directing immigration judges to close hearings involving detainees whose cases have been designated of “special interest” to the FBI. It also prohibited court administrators from listing the cases on dockets or confirming when hearings are to be held. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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