Justice Williams still waiting for terror cases

We remember how Keven McKenna unsuccessfully challenged the role of Frank J. Williams, chief justice of the RI Supreme Court, in serving on a federal appeals panel concerning US terror detainees. Now, as Eric Tucker of the Providence AP recently reported, Williams is still waiting for his first case in that arena:

The U.S. Court of Military Commission Review was created last year to hear appeals from detainees convicted of war crimes and to review other decisions made by military tribunals.

It has heard only one case so far, but Williams wasn't on the three-judge panel that decided it. The first of the full-fledged trials is at least a few months away, and the only person yet convicted in military court proceedings, Australian David Hicks, gave up his right to an appeal after pleading guilty last year.

Williams, a former Army captain who earned a Bronze Star in the Vietnam War and still peppers his speech with military analogies, said he became motivated to serve the country again after Sept. 11. He sent a resume and cover letter to the Defense Department general counsel, offering help as the government was setting up military courts to prosecute fighters captured overseas.

"I can't get into a uniform again and go to Iraq or Afghanistan," he said. "I do what I think I can do best, which is judge."

Williams and three other judges were appointed to a forerunner appeals court that was disbanded when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that the military commission structure was unconstitutional. Congress passed a new law, the Military Commissions Act, and a new court of civilian and military judges was constituted last year to handle appeals.

Williams became chief judge in November.

In a law review article last year, Williams described the Sept. 11 hijackers as "nihilistic barbarians." He argued the military commission system affords detainees ample legal protections and is a justifiable and historically established way to deal with suspected terrorists.

That view troubled detainee lawyers who view the tribunal process as inherently unfair and designed to produce and affirm convictions.

David Glazier, a military commission expert at Loyola Law School, said Williams appears to have adopted the Bush administration's "unconstrained definition of a global 'war on terror.'" He said detainee lawyers would be wise to ask him to recuse himself if they appear before his court, and that Williams seems to have already prejudged the fairness of the system.

"These are issues that call for an unbiased assessment by the trial and appellate judges on a case-by-case basis, and any individual who has already formed blanket conclusions is clearly unsuited for these roles," Glazier wrote in an e-mail message.

Williams rejects the criticism, and lawyers who have appeared before him describe him as unbiased. He said he was merely trying to frame the debate over military tribunals from a historical perspective, drawing on his expertise in Lincoln and the Civil War.

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