The chief justice’s return came as the Supreme Court decided not to hear the appeal of terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, the only U.S. defendant charged in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The decision left in place a lower court ruling that the government could pursue the death penalty even though Moussaoui’s access to three al-Qaida captives was restricted. The trial court said that the defendant could use government-prepared summaries from the captives but could not interview them.
Moussaoui, a French citizen, has acknowledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden but denies having any role in the Sept. 1l attacks.
The defendant’s court-appointed attorneys said that restricting his access to summaries is a violation of his 6th Amendment right to a fair trial, saying the information is “from unnamed, unsworn government agents purporting to report unsworn, incomplete, nonverbatim accounts” of witness statements, the Associated Press reported.
The Bush administration said that a review from the Supreme Court was premature because government attorneys were putting together summaries under the guidance of U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema.
The administration says that an appeal, if necessary, would have made more sense after the trial.
The decision came as Rehnquist joined the eight other justices in hearing a case from a Colorado woman who wants to sue her police department for failing to protect her three daughters who were killed by her estranged husband. Jessica Gonzales, who is seeking $30 million in damages, hopes the case will require police to more strictly enforce restraining orders.
Gonzales called the Castle Rock Police Department on June 22, 1999 when she discovered her three daughters aged 7, 9 and 10 were missing from her yard.
She suspected the girls were with her estranged husband Simon Gonzales, against whom she had a restraining order saying he could only see the children during prearranged visits.
The police told Mrs. Gonzales there was nothing they could do but wait. At 3 a.m. Simon Gonzales drove to a police station and opened fire. Police shot back, killing him. In Simon Gonzales’ truck the police discovered the bodies of the Gonzales’ daughters.
“A decision by this court will have implications far beyond the interests of Jessica Gonzales and the City of Castle Rock,” the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and National Center for Victims of Crime told the justices in a friend-of-the-court brief.
Supporters of Castle Rock said that if Gonzales wins “the expansion in both liability and litigation will have devastating consequences both for the public safety and for municipal governments throughout the nation.”
A decision is expected by July in Castle Rock v. Gonzales.
Also Monday, the high court declined to hear cases challenging President Bush’s “recess appointment” of William Pryor to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.
While the Constitution gives presidents power to fill vacancies while Senate is in recess, there is debate over whether recess means a short intra-session break or only the Senate’s adjournment at the end of a year.
In the decision to not hear the case, the court said the justices might be interested in hearing the case when appeals in lower courts have ruled on the matter.
Thomas Goldstein, a Washington attorney representing Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., wrote that “unprecedented conception of the recess appointments power obviously vitiates the cardinal authority of the Senate to pass on the president’s nominees.”
The lawyer for the Bush administration, Paul Clement, argued that the authority for presidents to make recess appointments, including 12 Supreme Court justices, has been long-held procedure.
This contentious issue comes during a time when many speculate Chief Justice Rehnquist, 80, may step down at the end of the term, leading to the first opening on the bench since 1994.
Though the justice has not been in the courtroom since Oct. 18, he had worked for weeks reading transcripts of arguments, voting on decisions and heading private meetings of the justices.
Rehnquist has been chief justice since 1986 and a member of the Supreme Court since 1972.