Terror detainees win right to sue
In two landmark cases, the court rules against President Bush, saying 'enemy combatants' should have access to US courts.
President Bush acted beyond his constitutional authority as commander in chief when he ordered the indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" seized on a foreign battlefield without giving them access to US courts.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In a day of landmark decisions at the US Supreme Court dealing with the war on terror, the justices ruled that so-called enemy combatants are entitled to access to US courts whether they are being held in a military brig within the US or at a terrorism prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The rulings amount to a major setback for President Bush and his legal advisers, who have sought to promote a more robust application of the president's powers as commander in chief in response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11.
In a third potential landmark case, the nation's highest court declined on jurisdictional grounds to determine whether the same principles should apply to the open-ended jailing of American citizens who are seized on US soil as enemy combatants.
In the two major decisions handed down Monday, the high court invalidated two highly controversial tactics being deployed by the Bush administration in the war on terror - the indefinite detention of US-born Yaser Hamdi with only limited access to the courts, and the continued holding of hundreds of detainees at a terrorism prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with no access to US courts.
"We reaffirm today the fundamental nature of a citizen's right to be free from involuntary confinement by his own government without due process of law," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writes for the majority in Mr. Hamdi's case. "A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."
In the Guantánamo Bay detainee cases, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that foreign nationals being held by the military overseas but within US jurisdiction must be given access to US federal courts.
Nothing in US law "excludes aliens detained in military custody outside the United States from the privilege of litigation in US courts," Justice Stevens says.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia calls the majority's decision in the Guantánamo Bay case "judicial adventurism of the worst sort."
"The court springs a trap on the executive, subjecting Guantanamo Bay to the oversight of the federal courts even though it has never before been thought to be within their jurisdiction - and thus making it a foolish place to have housed alien wartime detainees," Justice Scalia writes.
In the third case confronted by the court, the justices declined to address whether Jose Padilla, a US citizen seized on American soil, can be held indefinitely without charge in military custody after being designated an enemy combatant. But the court's ruling in Mr. Hamdi's case effectively answers that question.
The president as commander in chief has the power to detain enemy combatants, but he does not have the power to prevent them from challenging their detention in a federal court.
"We necessarily reject the government's assertion that separation of powers principles mandate a heavily circumscribed role for the courts," says Justice O'Connor.
She adds, "It would turn our system of checks and balances on its head to suggest that a citizen could not make his way to court with a challenge to the factual basis for his detention by his government."
In the Padilla case, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that Padilla's lawyers filed their lawsuit in the wrong court. Instead of a federal court in New York City, the lawyers should have filed suit in Charleston, S.C., where Padilla is being held in a military brig.
The court's actions constitute a major victory for civil libertarians and human rights advocates who have denounced the president's antiterror tactics as a substantial erosion of fundamental American freedoms.
"This is a sweeping victory for the rule of law," says Deborah Pearlstein, director of the US Law and Security Program at Human Rights First in Washington, D.C.