Steve Chapman

It's a classic Orwellian nightmare: The government decides to deny you a right it extends to other people, but it won't tell you why and it won't tell you what you can do about it. You're stuck in purgatory, effectively convicted without being tried -- or even being told the charge against you.

This system is in use by both the federal government and the state of Illinois. But George Orwell is dead, and the Constitution is not. So citizens put on double-secret probation by law enforcement agencies may turn to the courts to escape, and they may win.

They have already registered a victory against the "no-fly list" compiled by the FBI and enforced by the Transportation Security Administration. Last month, a federal court in Oregon ruled the system unconstitutional because it denies those on the list the right to travel without due process of law. If the government wants to keep you off a plane, the court concluded, it has to tell you why and let you respond.

That battle is not over, though, and a parallel one is just beginning in Illinois. When a federal appeals court said that the state had to create a system to allow the carrying of concealed weapons, the state Legislature did so, wailing and weeping all the while. But unlike states that provide licenses to anyone who meets certain conditions, Illinois added an extra one.

It authorizes local law enforcement officials to object to anyone they regard as "a danger to himself or herself, or a threat to public safety." If a state review board agrees, it will deny the application.

Those rejected, however, are not informed of the specific objections. They are not allowed to contest the claims. They are not told why they are deemed unfit. They are guilty, of what they know not, subject to a penalty of indefinite duration.

This policy likewise may fall in court. It's the target of lawsuits filed by the National Rifle Association on behalf of citizens who were refused concealed-carry licenses. They got the required training, paid the mandatory fee and hadn't been convicted of any disqualifying offenses, but none of that mattered.

Even if you don't care about personal liberties, these systems are programmed to malfunction. Courts try to reach sound verdicts through an adversarial process where the evidence is known to all and subject to actual dispute. A process that allows the accuser to speak, while the accused has to wear a blindfold and earplugs, has slightly less chance of revealing the truth.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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