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Justices Say Detainees Can Seek Release

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The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have rights under the Constitution to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts. Video by AP

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

A deeply divided Supreme Court yesterday ruled that terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have a right to seek their release in federal court, delivering a historic rebuke to the Bush administration and Congress for policies that the majority said compromised, in the name of national security, the Constitution's guarantee of liberty.

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"The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for a five-member majority clearly impatient that some prisoners have been held for six years without a hearing.

The much-anticipated decision was the fourth time the court has ruled against the administration's ambitious attempt to create a framework for detaining and prosecuting terrorism suspects outside the protections the U.S. legal system generally provides.

As a result of the ruling, the approximately 270 detainees remaining at Guantanamo and their lawyers will be able to challenge their detentions before civilian judges, potentially forcing the government to present evidence against them and giving them the chance to call their own witnesses.

Government officials said military commission cases against 20 detainees who have already been charged with specific crimes could go forward, but defense lawyers said the ruling could open the door to court challenges of that process as well.

The decision brought biting dissents from the four conservative justices, with Justice Antonin Scalia taking the unusual step of summarizing his opposition from the bench. "America is at war with radical Islamists," he wrote, adding that the decision "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed." He went on to say: "The Nation will live to regret what the court has done today."

A disappointed President Bush was not as dramatic. "We'll abide by the court's position," he said in Rome, in the midst of a European tour. "That doesn't mean I have to agree with it."

He also said the administration will consider new legislation "so that we can safely say . . . to the American people, 'We're doing everything we can to protect you.' "

The cases decided yesterday were brought on behalf of 37 foreigners at Guantanamo Bay. All were captured on foreign soil and have been designated enemy combatants. They have proclaimed their innocence -- some say they were turned over to coalition forces for money -- and for years have asked federal courts for a chance to challenge their captivity.

Their claim is to the writ of habeas corpus, the right with roots in English law and enshrined in the Constitution that gives a prisoner the ability to protest his confinement before an independent judge. The Bush administration chose Guantanamo Bay as the place to house those captured in other countries and suspected of terrorism because it thought such a right did not extend to the base in Cuba.

The administration has sought to restrict access to federal courts by those captured in the fight against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Those efforts have led to clashes between the courts, the president and Congress.

Each time, the Supreme Court has ruled against the administration, but the majority noted yesterday that losing the battles has not kept the administration from winning the war: After six years, none of the detainees has succeeded in getting his complaint reviewed by a judge.


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More on the Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court

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[Guantanamo Prison]

Guantanamo Prison

Full coverage of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including Supreme Court rulings over its legality.

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