Justices Back Detainee Access To U.S. Courts
President's Powers Are Limited
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page A01
The Supreme Court struck down key elements of the Bush administration's legal policy for its battle against terrorism yesterday, ruling in two cases that the executive branch does not have the authority to deprive accused members of al Qaeda or the Taliban of their liberty without giving them a day in court.
The court said the president may order a U.S. citizen detained as an "enemy combatant" -- but it soundly rejected the administration's expansive interpretation of that authority, ruling that such detainees are entitled to contest the government's case against them.
The court also ruled that each of the 595 alleged members of al Qaeda and the Taliban being held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has the right to ask a U.S. judge to set him free.
In a third case -- that of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who is accused of taking part in an al Qaeda plot to explode a radiological bomb in the United States -- the court ruled that he would have to resubmit his petition for habeas corpus because his attorney filed it in the wrong court.
The courtroom atmosphere was tense as justices read a series of much-anticipated opinions, elaborating their strongly felt views on cases that had raised the most significant wartime civil liberties issues since World War II. Those opinions left open questions about the precise scope and practical effect of what the court had done.
But the court's bottom line was clear: Insofar as it affects individual constitutional rights, the president's conduct of the fight against terrorism is not immune to judicial review.
"Striking the proper constitutional balance here is of great importance to the Nation during this period of ongoing combat," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, in a passage that seemed to summarize the dominant view of the court. "But it is equally vital that our calculus not give short shrift to the values that this country holds dear or to the privilege that is American citizenship. It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our Nation's commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad."
She added: "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."
Civil liberties organizations and their allies in Congress hailed the decisions, saying the court had validated their claims that, since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has been sacrificing too much liberty in the name of national security.
"The Supreme Court's decisions in the Hamdi case and the case involving the Guantanamo detainees are triumphs for the rule of law," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "The notion that the President has the unchallengeable authority to define the circumstances of a person's detention, especially that of a United States citizen, is contrary to our nation's history and experience."
The Bush administration emphasized that the court had recognized that it may detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants, albeit under more limited circumstances.
"The Justice Department is pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the authority of the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces to detain enemy combatants, including U.S. citizens," department spokesman Mark Corallo said in a statement. "This authority is crucial in times of war whether the enemy combatants are individuals who join our enemies on the battlefield to fight against America and its allies, or whether they are individuals who infiltrate our border to commit hostile and war-like acts against our nation."
In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, No. 03-6696, the issue was whether President Bush could declare Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen who was arrested while allegedly fighting for the Taliban in 2001, an enemy combatant and order him detained indefinitely by the military.
The Bush administration cited both the president's inherent powers to conduct war and the Sept. 18, 2001, congressional resolution allowing him to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company