WASHINGTON - A federal judge on Thursday ordered the government to stop trying to restrict lawyers' access to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington said that the detainees have the right to meet with their lawyers and that a 4-year-old court order dealing with lawyer access to the brig at the U.S. naval base in Cuba is working well.
Lamberth sided with some detainees whose bids to challenge their confinement have been denied or dismissed. The order prohibits the government from imposing new restrictions on lawyer-client meetings.
The government wanted to force lawyers who want to continue to meet with their clients to agree in writing that any meetings or communications with the detainees are "subject to the authority and discretion" of the Guantanamo Bay commanding officer.
The terrorist suspects at Guantanamo have an ongoing right to go to court to contest their imprisonment, Lamberth said. "In the case of Guantanamo detainees, access to the courts means nothing without access to counsel," he said.
Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, said the government's attempt to change the rules was "an illegitimate exercise of executive power."
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said government lawyers were reviewing Lamberth's ruling.
The government had argued that detainees who had lost their court efforts to win release or who had ended their cases voluntarily no longer should be covered by the earlier court order. Last month, Justice Department lawyer James J. Gilligan told Lamberth that the biggest change in the rules would be access to classified information. Lawyers wouldn't have automatic access to classified documents that they obtained or created as part of the detainees' earlier court cases.
Lamberth said Thursday he saw no need for a change. "The old maxim `if it ain't broke, don't fix it' would seem to caution against altering a counsel-access regime that has proven safe, efficient, and eminently workable. Indeed, the government had no answer when the court posed this question in oral arguments," he said.
There are nearly 170 men at Guantanamo, many who have been there for 10 years without facing any charges.