Attorney General John Ashcroft is once again exhibiting his rapidly declining respect for constitutional principles.

On Oct. 30, with no public comment or judicial examination, Ashcroft ordered the Department of Justice to listen in on conversations between attorneys and clients. The sole requirement for the monitoring is the attorney general”s belief that there is “reasonable suspicion” that the dialogue between lawyer and client could allow terrorists to operate undetected. Furthermore, individuals do not have to be charged with a crime for the Justice Department to listen to their discussions. This outright disregard of the Sixth Amendment”s guarantee of effective counsel exemplifies the DOJ”s recent willingness to abandon the Bill of Rights and the fundamental principle of judicial review.

The right to private communication between an attorney and client is imperative for adequate legal counsel. If conversations between attorneys and detainees are monitored, the detainee may not be forthcoming with information that would clear himself or herself from charges. For example, if a detainee”s alibi involves unrelated illegal activity they will be less eager to tell his or her lawyer. The DOJ argues that a few safeguards will make their eavesdropping less of a threat to civil liberties. Detainees will be notified when their conversations are subject to monitoring and a “taint team” will be established that will prevent the discussion from being released to prosecutors without the permission of a federal judge. While these measures are more than superficial, the possibility of communication that was previously private being used to prosecute an inmate will seriously impinge on the right to effective legal representation.

Ashcroft”s latest action is especially disconcerting as the government has the ability to monitor discussions between attorneys and inmates in extraordinary situations when approved by a Judge. Now this authority resides solely with the attorney general, a politically charged position.

In addition to Ashcroft”s latest action, the attorney general has repeatedly cast aside the impartial role of judges in the process of criminal investigations. “Court stripping,” the weakening and removal of the judicial branch”s role, is the most damaging byproduct of Ashcroft”s actions. Courts must serve as the final barrier to unconstitutional law enforcement tactics. The USA Patriot Act, which Ashcroft strongly lobbied for, allows wiretaps for all forms of communication an individual uses. Now judges do not have to approve each specific form of surveillance instead blanket surveillance for all of an individual”s communication is approved. The act also allows the indefinite detention of non-citizens without meaningful judicial review and permits the government to see financial and medical records without first obtaining a court order.

While these actions may have frightening ramifications in the future, the DOJ has already shown its willingness to act irresponsibly. The DOJ has detained over 1,000 people in its on-going investigation of the Sept.11 attacks and has refused to release the names or locations of these individuals. Without public oversight it is impossible to know if the government is acting properly and providing detainees with basic rights.

The DOJ”s actions of the last two months show a clear pattern of neglecting judicial review and public input for the sake of expediency. While some action is certainly warranted, the DOJ must take the utmost care to preserve constitutional rights and democratic principles.

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