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Bush-era lawyer could stand trial for penning 'torture memos'

John Yoo can be held responsible for the alleged torture of detainee Jose Padilla, a judge ruled Friday.

John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this 2008 file photo.

Susan Walsh/AP/ File

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The debate over what should happen to Bush administration lawyers who drafted the so-called "torture memos" has taken a new turn.

A federal judge in San Francisco ruled Friday a former Justice Department legal adviser can be held personally responsible for the indefinite military detention and alleged torture of an American citizen who was suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda.

The ruling clears the way for John Yoo to stand trial in a civil lawsuit for his role in producing a series of legal memos authorizing harsh interrogation tactics that were later used against suspected enemy combatant Jose Padilla.

"Like any other government official, government lawyers are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct," wrote US District Judge Jeffrey White in a 42-page decision.

Judge White's decision reignites debate about whether government lawyers should be investigated and prosecuted for their involvement with the memos.

Some analysts say government lawyers should never face criminal charges for advice – even bad advice – if offered in a good faith belief it was legal. Others say Bush administration lawyers appear to have acted more like mafia , helping their bosses evade the law rather than comply with it.

The Justice Department lawyers who are defending Mr. Yoo argue that Mr. Padilla's treatment did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights. In addition, they say Yoo should enjoy qualified immunity from such lawsuits.

Judge White rejected those arguments, saying that Padilla's lawyers had alleged sufficient facts to satisfy the requirement that "Yoo set in motion a series of events that resulted in the deprivation of Padilla's constitutional rights."


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