Supreme Court Says Courts Can Review Bush Administration Actions in Terrorism Fight

June 28, 2004 12:00 am

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“A State of War is Not a Blank Check for the President When it Comes to the Rights of the Nation’s Citizens,” Justices Say


NEW YORK – Rejecting the Bush administration’s arguments that its actions in the war on terrorism are beyond the rule of law, the Supreme Court today ruled that detainees and “enemy combatants” held by the United States are entitled to challenge their detention in court.

“Today’s historic rulings are a strong repudiation of the administration’s argument that its actions in the war on terrorism are beyond the rule of law and unreviewable by American courts,” said ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro. “The administration designed its war on terrorism in an effort to insulate its actions from judicial review. The Supreme Court today clearly and overwhelmingly rejected that strategy.”

The cases, which addressed the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens designated as enemy combatants and of non-citizens at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba, raised fundamental questions about the role of the courts in preserving civil liberties during times of national crisis.

The Supreme Court, said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, today “unflinchingly asserted the central role of the judiciary in determining the appropriate balance in matters of national security and civil liberties.”

“President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft have wrongly asserted that their actions in the war on terror were lawful and within the scope of the Constitution,” Romero said. “Today’s decisions clearly repudiate that assertion and show that the Bush administration’s war on terror has eroded constitutional rights and respect for the rule of law. The Guantánamo and Hamdi cases in particular reinforce longstanding notions of the rights of the detained and accused.”

In the Guantánamo cases, the Court ruled 6-3 that prisoners seized as potential terrorists and held for more than two years at a U.S. military prison camp in Cuba may challenge their captivity in American courts.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said that the inmates’ status in military custody is immaterial. “What is presently at stake is only whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the executive’s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing,” he wrote. The cases are Rasul v. Bush, 03-334 and Al Odah v. United States, 03-343.

Writing for an 8-1 majority in the case of American-born detainee Yaser Esam Hamdi, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the Court has “made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.” Four of the Justices (Souter, Ginsburg, Scalia and Stevens) said that they would go further and order Hamdi’s immediate release, and Justice Souter in particular said that holding Hamdi incommunicado is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The case is Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 03-6696.

In the second enemy combatant case, Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 03-1027, the Justices evaded the substantive question of Padilla’s right to counsel, saying that his case had been brought in the wrong venue and must be refiled in South Carolina, where Padilla is being held.

Shapiro noted that the Hamdi opinion may have strengthened Padilla’s legal claim that, because he was arrested at O’Hare Airport rather than captured on the battlefield, he should not be subject at all to detention as an enemy combatant.

The Guantánamo detainees will now have a right to press their claim in the lower courts that their detention is unlawful. Hamdi will now receive a federal court hearing in which he will have an opportunity to establish that he should not have been designated an enemy combatant. Padilla will undoubtedly now file a new court case in South Carolina to pursue his claim that he should be tried or released.

The decisions in all of the cases can be accessed through the ACLU website at /supremecourt.

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