Supreme Court Backs Civil Liberties in Terror Cases
Justices Say Detainees Held in U.S. Retain Rights to Legal Hearing
By Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; 8:00 PM
In two crucial decisions today on the scope of presidential wartime powers, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's claim that it can hold suspected terrorists or "enemy combatants" on American soil without giving them a day in court.
The court said detainees, whether American citizens or not, retain their rights, at least to a legal hearing, even if they are held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Guantanamo Bay is under U.S. control and thus appropriately within the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, the high court ruled.
The president's constitutional powers, even when supported by Congress in wartime, do not include the authority to close the doors to an independent review of the legality of locking people up, the justices said.
"We have long since 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," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in Hamdi et al v. Rumsfeld.
The rulings were the court's most significant statement in decades on the scope of presidential war powers to deal with "enemy combatants," such as someone seized on a battlefield in Afghanistan. Those powers, under the constitution, are insufficient to close the doors of the federal courts, the high court said.
The administration's detention policies have been among the most controversial outgrowths of its war on terrorism, provoking significant political and legal debate between those who felt the government had gone too far and those who believed its actions were intrinsic to the president's constitutional role as commander-in-chief.
Four justices -- a plurality -- said congress did indeed authorize detention of citizens. But the administration secured only one vote -- that of Justice Clarence Thomas -- for the proposition of detention of a citizen without any hearing. Thomas, dissenting, said he would affirm the lower court ruling overturned today.
The decisions came in a package of cases all related to arrests after Sept. 11, 2001, of people deemed terrorists or enemy combatants by the government.
The cases were Hamdi et al v. Rumsfeld and Rasul et al v. Bush. In a third related case, the court declined on technical grounds to rule on the merits of a challenge brought by Jose Padilla, who was arrested in Chicago after a flight from Pakistan, sending the case back to a lower court in South Carolina.
O'Connor was joined in the Hamdi case by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer. Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with O'Connor's result, but took issue with the plurality's holding that the detentions were implicitly sanctioned by Congress when it voted to authorize the use of force in the war on terrorism.
Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens dissented but not in support of the administration. Indeed, Scalia declared that there is only one way to prosecute citizens accused of aiding the enemy -- to treat them as "traitors subject to the criminal process."
". . . A view of the Constitution that gives the Executive authority to use military force rather than the force of law against citizens on American soil flies in the face" of the Constitution and of American traditions, Scalia wrote.
In the Rasul case, which involved foreigners held at Guantanamo, Stevens wrote for the court, joined by O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Scalia, Rehnquist and Thomas dissented, saying that foreigners arrested overseas do not have access to the U.S. courts.
"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," Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
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