Court Case Challenges Power of President

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Seized by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Osama bin Laden's former chauffeur is now seeking victory over President Bush in a new arena: the Supreme Court.

In oral arguments Tuesday, an attorney for Salim Ahmed Hamdan will ask the justices to declare unconstitutional the U.S. military commission that plans to try him for conspiring with his former boss to carry out terrorist attacks.

Significant as that demand is, its potential impact is much wider, making Hamdan's case one of the most important of Bush's presidency. It is a challenge to the broad vision of presidential power that Bush has asserted since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In blunt terms, Hamdan's brief calls on the court to stop "this unprecedented arrogation of power." Just as urgently, the administration's brief urges the court not to second-guess the decisions of the commander in chief while "the armed conflict against al Qaeda remains ongoing."

The case may not produce a frontal clash between the judiciary and the executive -- if the court decides that a recently enacted federal law on military commissions deprives it of jurisdiction to rule on Hamdan's case. Yet another possibility is that the court could reach an inconclusive 4 to 4 tie because Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had ruled on the case while he was on a federal appeals court and must sit out now.

But if the court fears to tread on such difficult ground, it has given no sign of that. It has refused the administration's invitation to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction before hearing arguments, and, perhaps more important, it has already refused to defer completely to the president in two previous terrorism-related cases.

"There are so many issues in the case -- whether the president was authorized by the Constitution, or a statute, to set up the commissions -- right down to exactly how to fit this kind of a war into the existing laws of war," said Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Supreme Court litigation. "Most cases have two or three or four issues. This one has 10 or 12, which makes it very hard to handicap."

Whether designating an American citizen as an "enemy combatant" subject to military confinement, denying coverage under the Geneva Conventions to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, or using the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on domestic communications, Bush has said that the Constitution and a broadly worded congressional resolution passed three days after Sept. 11, 2001, empower him to wage war against terrorists all but unencumbered by judicial review, congressional oversight or international law.

Those assertions emerged in Bush's Military Order No. 1 of Nov. 13, 2001, which established the commissions and set off one of the first political debates in the United States over terrorism after two months of relative unity after the attacks.

The administration wanted a tough-minded alternative to the civilian court system that the Clinton administration had used against terrorists. Yet the swift and certain punishment that supporters of the commissions expected has not materialized. Though 10 of the 490 terrorism suspects currently held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay have been designated for trial, not a single case has been decided.

From the outset, the commissions have been plagued by questions about their fairness and workability. Critics argued that the commissions were flawed because, as Hamdan's brief, written by Georgetown University law professor Neal K. Katyal, puts it, they would try suspects "for crimes defined by the President alone, under procedures lacking basic protections, before 'judges' who are his chosen subordinates."

After lengthy internal debates, the administration modified the commissions, requiring that trials be public and that defendants be presumed innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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