Without uttering a word or issuing a document, the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown a wrench into the judicial machine that will decide John Demjanjuk’s fate.
But the Justice Department, members of Congress and Jewish leaders, disappointed by the court’s decision not to hear the case involving the man accused of Nazi atrocities, have vowed to step up their campaign to fight for a second deportation.
The rejection of the Demjanjuk case was one of more than 1,600 cases the court turned down on its opening day Monday. Without comment, the Supreme Court elected not to review an appeals court finding that Justice Department officials had mishandled the case of Demjanjuk, who was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” the brutal guard at the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland.
With the Supreme Court’s decision, the focus now shifts to Cleveland, where a district court judge is considering new deportation proceedings.
Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986, where he spent seven years in prison until the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction there, paving the way for his return to the United States last year.
This week’s decision by the Supreme Court marked the latest twist in the roller coaster ride that has characterized Demjanjuk’s prosecution for nearly two decades, and it prompted immediate — and strong — reaction.
‘A PERVERSION OF AMERICAN JUSTICE’
Rabbi Avi Weiss, an activist who has led demonstrations outside Demjanjuk’s home in Seven Hills, Ohio, called the decision “a perversion of American justice.”
And the Anti-Defamation League, which was one of four Jewish organizations that had filed an amicus brief in July urging the Supreme Court to review the case, called the move “unfortunate.”
“This lets stand erroneous findings critical of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which has engaged in no misconduct,” said Ruth Lansner, chair of ADL’s Legal Affairs Committee. OSI investigates suspected Nazi war criminals and seeks to bring them to justice.
“There is no question that Demjanjuk should be stripped of his American citizenship and deported from the United States as soon as possible,” Lansner said.
Despite their disappointment, Jewish observers of the case as well as legal scholars say the court’s decision, or non-decision, will not affect deportation proceedings already under way by the Justice Department.
Carl Stern, spokesman for the Justice Department, expressed disappointment over the court’s decision, but vowed that the Justice Department would continue with its deportation proceedings.
“The decision has no bearing on whether Demjanjuk has a right to be in the United States under the law that excludes individuals who took part in Nazi persecution during World War II,” Stern said.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said he is “confident” that Demjanjuk will be deported.
He called the appeal to the Supreme Court a “longshot that never affected the core question of deportation.”
A Ukrainian-born retired autoworker, Demjanjuk, 74, was stripped of his citizenship and deported to Israel in 1986 after Holocaust survivors testified that he was “Ivan the Terrible.”
Following well-publicized and lengthy legal proceedings, an Israeli court convicted Demjanjuk of being the sadistic Nazi guard and sentenced him to death in 1988.
Last year, however, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction, saying there was “reasonable doubt” that Demjanjuk was the Treblinka guard. Israel’s decision paved the way for his return to the United States.
ANOTHER DEPORTATION HEARING SOUGHT
But the Israeli court, in its decision, said it found compelling evidence that Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor death camp and at the Flossenburg and Regensburg concentration camps.
Since his return in September 1993, the Justice Department has made clear it would seek to have him deported again for lying about his wartime activities when he entered the United States in 1958.
An appeals court ruled last year that Justice Department prosecutors had committed fraud by withholding evidence while obtaining Demjanjuk’s extradition order to Israel.
It was that ruling that the Justice Department was appealing to the Supreme Court.
In its petition, lawyers for the Justice Department’s OSI argued that the government had acted in good faith at Demjanjuk’s 1985 deportation trial before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Observers suggested at the time that if the Supreme Court overturned the fraud charges, the government would have a better chance of deporting Demjanjuk a second time.
With the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, however, all eyes are now focused back on the original district court in Cleveland, and on the original judge who had first ordered Demjanjuk’s extradition in 1985.
U.S. District Judge Frank Battisti in Cleveland had stayed the current round of deportation hearings pending the outcome of the Justice Department’s appeal to the Supreme Court.
A government source close to the case believes that Battisti will open the hearing now that the basis for his stay no longer exists.
At the same time, the source said it is likely that Demjanjuk’s attorneys will use this week’s Supreme Court decision to cast doubt on the Justice Department’s charges against him.
But the source predicted that following another extended legal battle, Demjanjuk would once again be deported.
Some members of Congress agreed.
“It’s a shame that the Supreme Court isn’t going to hear the case,” said U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). But it is, he added, “good because we can get on with the deportation hearings.”
“This ruling does not change the fundamental fact that John Demjanjuk served as an SS guard and lied about his Nazi past to illegally enter the United States,” said U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
“John Demjanjuk has no legal or moral claim to American citizenship and he must not be allowed to remain here,” she said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.