A Blow Against Tyranny

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 13, 2008; 12:41 PM

In yesterday's landmark Supreme Court decision that President Bush cannot deny prisoners at Guantanamo Bay the right to challenge their detentions in federal court, there's a key passage about protecting people from despotism.

The passage comes as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is relating the history and origins of the great writ of habeas corpus. Kennedy quotes from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist No. 84, which in turn quotes English jurist William Blackstone: "[T]he practice of arbitrary imprisonments, have been, in all ages, the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny. The observations of the judicious Blackstone . . . are well worthy of recital: 'To bereave a man of life. . . or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government.'"

And here, from a press availability with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday, is Bush's response to the ruling: "[W]e'll abide by the Court's decision. That doesn't mean I have to agree with it. It's a deeply divided Court, and I strongly agree with those who dissented, and their dissent was based upon their serious concerns about U.S. national security.

"Congress and the administration worked very carefully on a piece of legislation that set the appropriate procedures in place as to how to deal with the detainees.

"And we'll study this opinion, and we'll do so with this in mind, to determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate, so that we can safely say, or truly say to the American people: We're doing everything we can to protect you."

See yesterday's column for some immediate reaction to the ruling. And let's start our survey of media reaction today with the opinion writers.

Opinion Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The Supreme Court ruling yesterday that those held at Guantanamo Bay have a constitutional right to challenge their detentions in federal court is a welcome victory for due process and the rule of law. It completes a signal and totally avoidable failure by President Bush, who will leave office with the nation's regime for holding al-Qaeda combatants in shambles."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "For years, with the help of compliant Republicans and frightened Democrats in Congress, President Bush has denied the protections of justice, democracy and plain human decency to the hundreds of men that he decided to label 'unlawful enemy combatants' and throw into never-ending detention.

"Twice the Supreme Court swatted back his imperial overreaching, and twice Congress helped Mr. Bush try to open a gaping loophole in the Constitution. On Thursday, the court turned back the most recent effort to subvert justice with a stirring defense of habeas corpus, the right of anyone being held by the government to challenge his confinement before a judge. . . .

"It was a very good day for people who value freedom and abhor Mr. Bush's attempts to turn Guantánamo Bay into a constitutional-rights-free zone."

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "The Supreme Court yesterday took back the moral high ground in America's fight against terrorism, even as President Bush quickly signaled that he'd gladly surrender it again."

Newsday's editorial board writes: "Forcing the government to prove it acted within the law when locking someone up is a key legal protection that separates the United States from the world's hell holes. That check on tyranny has been missing in action at Guantanamo."

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