Court gives detainees habeas rights
UPDATE, 1:03 p.m. The District Court judges in Washington who will hear the detainees’ habeas challenges mandated by the Supreme Court will meet soon to decide how to proceed, that Court announced shortly after the Supreme Court ruled. Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth said “I expect we’ll call in the lawyers for both sides to see what suggestions they have for how we can approach our task most effectively and efficiently.” The press release can be read here.
In a stunning blow to the Bush Administration in its war-on-terrorism policies, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that foreign nationals held at Guantanamo Bay have a right to pursue habeas challenges to their detention. The Court, dividing 5-4, ruled that Congress had not validly taken away habeas rights. If Congress wishes to suspend habeas, it must do so only as the Constitution allows — when the country faces rebellion or invasion.
The Court stressed that it was not ruling that the detainees are entitled to be released — that is, entitled to have writs issued to end their confinement. That issue, it said, is left to the District Court judges who will be hearing the challenges. The Court also said that “we do not address whether the President has authority to detain” individuals during the war on terrorism, and hold them at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba; that, too, it said, is to be considered first by the District judges.
The Court also declared that detainees do not have to go through the special civilian court review process that Congress created in 2005, since that is not an adequate substitute for habeas rights. The Court refused to interpret the Detainee Treatment Act — as the Bush Administration had suggested — to include enough legal protection to make it an adequate replacement for habeas. Congress, it concluded, unconstitutionally suspended the writ in enacting that Act.
The Court also found serious defects in the process that the Pentagon set up in 2004 to decide which prisoners are to be designated as “enemy combatants” — the status that leads to their continued confinement. This process is the system of so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The procedures used by CSRTs, the Court said, “fall well short of the procedures and adversarial mechanisms that would eliminate the need for habeas corpus review.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion for the majority in Boumediene v. Bush (06-1195) and Al Odah v. U.S. (06-1196) was an almost rhapsodic review of the history of the Great Writ. The Suspension Clause, he wrote, “protects the rights of the detained by a means consistent with the essential design of the Constitution. It ensures that, except during periods of formal suspension, the Judiciary will have a time-tested device, the writ, to maintain the ‘delicate balance of governance’ that is itself the surest safeguard of liberty.” Those who wrote the Constitution, he added, “deemed the writ to be an essential mechanism in the separation-of-powers scheme.”
Even though the two political branches — the President and Congress — had agreed to take away the detainees’ habeas rights, Kennedy said those branches do not have “the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will.”
In a second ruling on habeas, the Court decided unanimously that U.S. citizens held by U.S. military forces in Iraq have a right to file habeas cases, because it does extend to them, but it went on to rule that federal judges do not have any authority to bar the transfer of those individuals to Iraqi authorites to face prosecution or punishment for crimes committed in that country in violation of Iraqi laws.