Little redress in US courts for detainees
The Supreme Court avoided a test of Bush's terror-fighting powers Monday, letting stand a ruling denying Guantánamo detainees access.
A sharply divided US Supreme Court has declined to take up one of the thorniest legal issues in the Bush administration's war on terror – whether detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are entitled to federal court hearings to challenge their open-ended detention.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, in a significant victory for the White House, the nation's highest court on Monday let stand a Feb. 20 appeals court ruling that the detainees are not entitled to immediate access to US federal courts.
Lawyers representing 45 of the 385 detainees at the terror detention camp at the US Naval base at Guantanamo had asked the justices to take up the case on an expedited basis. They wanted the high court to hear arguments during a special oral argument session in early May so a decision could be released by the term's end in late June.
But the court refused to wade into the controversy at all. Instead, the detainees must now exhaust the legal and other avenues established by Congress and the military at a federal appeals court in Washington before bringing their cases to the nation's highest court.
Four of nine justices must vote to take up a case. In issuing the denial on Monday, three justices, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the court should have taken up the cases.
The decision means that detainee review procedures and military commission trials will move forward this spring without the threat of an adverse Supreme Court ruling hanging over military prosecutors and other Defense Department officials.
But two justices, John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy, issued what appeared to be a warning to the Bush administration. They said legal analysts should not see the high court's refusal to take up the case as an endorsement of the government's treatment of the detainees. They said that Guantánamo detainees could file future appeals to the Supreme Court if their cases were subject to unreasonable delays.
"Alternative means exist for us to consider our jurisdiction" in the cases, Justice Stevens writes in a brief statement.
In the two companion appeals denied on Monday, lawyers for the detainees challenged President Bush's expansive view of his war powers and asked the justices to clearly delineate what rights, if any, are owed to terror suspects under the US Constitution.
"What ultimately is at stake here is America's commitment to its core values and the rule of law," wrote Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner in his brief to the court on behalf of the detainees.
"That commitment requires ... that this court make clear that our government cannot evade the core constitutional limits on its authority – and the fundamental values of fairness for which our country is known – simply by placing its prisoners in areas beyond our technical sovereignty," Mr. Wilner said.
The two consolidated cases, Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. United States, would have presented the first opportunity for the high court to assess the constitutionality of a 2006 law that sought to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction to consider the detainees' plight.
At issue was whether the Military Commissions Act (MCA), passed by the prior Republican-controlled Congress, violated the constitutional right of prisoners under habeas corpus provisions to ask a neutral judge to assess the legality of their detention.
A federal appeals court panel in Washington ruled 2 to 1 on Feb. 20 that the new law did not violate the habeas safeguards. The Constitution does not confer rights on noncitizens being held at a military base outside US territory, the court ruled.
Lawyers for the detainees said the appeals court was wrong. They said the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 in a case called Rasul v. Bush that habeas protections historically extended beyond sovereign limits to any place under the government's control. Thus, federal judges have jurisdiction to hear the detainee cases at Guantánamo, the lawyers said.