ACLU Challenges the Bush Administration's Unilateral Authority to Define Citizens as Enemy Combatants and Detain Them Indefinitely

April 28, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In two friend-of-the-court briefs filed before the U.S. Supreme Court, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Bush administration’s legal position that the President has the unilateral authority to define U.S. citizens as “enemy combatants” and detain them indefinitely without charges.

In the consolidated cases of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (03-6696) and Rumsfeld v. Padilla (03-1027) the Justices will today review arguments regarding Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, two American citizens who have been detained in military brigs for more than two years since their capture or arrest.

“Our system of checks and balances was designed to ensure that individual liberty does not rest on the good faith of government officials and to place limits on the exercise of government authority,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the National Legal Director of the ACLU. “By contrast, the government’s claim that it can indefinitely detain both U.S. citizens and non-citizens without any meaningful review rests on an assertion of executive power that is virtually boundless.”

In the Padilla case, the ACLU has filed a friend-of-the-court brief highlighting our nation’s long constitutional tradition favoring civilian justice over military justice except in very limited circumstances. In the Hamdi case, the ACLU’s brief points out that arbitrary executive detention has been seen as inconsistent with the rule of law since at least the Magna Carta.

An appeals court in the Padilla case ruled that his military detention exceeded the authority of the executive branch and that U.S. citizens cannot be held at the sole discretion of the President without charges, trial or access to counsel. The appeals court in the Hamdi case found for the government.

Yaser Hamdi is an American citizen who was captured by the Northern Alliance while allegedly fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Jose Padilla, an American citizen and onetime Chicago gang member also known as Abdullah al-Muhajir, has been accused of but not charged with plotting to explode a radioactive bomb in the United States. He was arrested in Chicago in May 2002. Both have been detained in military brigs for nearly two years. Neither has been charged, or tried, or until very recently even allowed access to counsel. The sole basis for the detention is the President’s unilateral declaration that they are “enemy combatants.”

For more than eight decades, the ACLU has steadfastly adhered to the position that our nation’s commitment to civil liberties cannot be forsaken in periods of national crisis. The ACLU has stood for this principle throughout U.S. history, including the dark days of World War II, and as it stands for it today.

“The security of our people depends not only on defending our borders but also on defending the constitutional principles that define us as a nation,” Shapiro said.

The links to all the ACLU legal briefs are online at /supremecourt

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