Supreme Court Blocks Trials at Guantanamo


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

June 29, 2006

Supreme Court Blocks Trials at Guantánamo

The Supreme Court today delivered a sweeping rebuke to the Bush administration, 
ruling that the military tribunals it created to try terror suspects violate 
both American military law and the Geneva Convention.

In a 5-to-3 ruling, the justices also rejected an effort by Congress to strip 
the court of jurisdiction over habeas corpus appeals by detainees at the prison 
camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

And the court found that the plaintiff in the case, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former
driver for Osama bin Laden, could not be tried on the conspiracy charge lodged 
against him because international military law requires that prosecutions focus 
on specific acts, not broad conspiracy charges.

The majority ruling was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who was joined in 
parts of it by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel J. Alito Jr. dissented. 
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not take part in the case, since he had 
ruled in favor of the government as an appeals court justice last year.

Justice Thomas took the unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, the 
first time he has done so in his 15 years on the court. He said that the ruling 
would "sorely hamper the president's ability to confront and defeat a new and 
deadly enemy."

In the majority opinion, Justice Stevens declared flatly that "the military 
commission at issue lacks the power to proceed because its structure and 
procedure violate" both the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs the 
American military's legal system, and the Geneva Convention.

Justice Stevens rejected the administration's claims that the tribunals were 
justified both by President Bush's inherent powers as commander in chief and by 
the resolution passed by Congress authorizing the use of force after the Sept. 
11. There is nothing in the resolution's legislative history "even hinting" that
such an expansion of the president's powers was considered, he wrote.

The Supreme Court's ruling represented a decisive rejection of the 
administration's approach to the handling of suspects captured in the campaign 
against terrorism, legal experts said. But they also said it might open the way 
out of a legal morass created by contradictory court rulings and inconsistent 

President Bush, in preliminary remarks after what he called a "drive-by 
briefing" on the ruling, hinted at such an outcome, saying "the Hamdan decision 
was the way forward" as the administration works with Congress to revise its 

But he stressed his determination not to release suspected terrorists merely 
because the administration's tribunals had been rejected.

"The ruling won't cause killers to be put out on the streets," he said. "I'm not
going to jeopardize the safety of the American people."

Legal experts agreed that today's decision had no bearing on the 
administration's right to hold detainees at Guantánamo, but focused instead on 
the conditions under which they might be tried.

Mr. Hamdan was captured by Afghan troops in November 2001 and turned over to 
American custody, and has been held at the Guantánamo Bay prison since 2002. His
case has been seen as crucial to deciding the future of the several hundred 
detainees held at the camp, which has come under steady and increasing criticism
from countries around the world.

In a ruling two years ago written by former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the 
court said that powers given to the administration by Congress for the fight 
against Al Qaeda did not amount to a "blank check," and said that detainees were
entitled to a judicial process that met minimum legal standards. But it did not 
spell out what those standards entailed, and the military tribunals have 
essentially been frozen as appeals by detainees worked their way through the 
legal system.

President Bush said recently that he would like to close the camp, but needed to
wait for the Hamdan ruling to see whether the military could proceed with its 
tribunals or if another form of trial would be have to be found for those 
detainees the administration wishes to keep in custody.

Cmdr. Charles Swift, the Navy lawyer assigned by the military to represent Mr. 
Hamdan, said at a televised news conference held outside the Supreme Court that 
the logical next step would be for Mr. Hamdan to be tried either by a 
traditional military court martial, as provided for under the Geneva Convention,
or by a federal court.

He called today's ruling "a return to our fundamental values."

"That return marks a high-water point," Commander Swift said. "It shows that we 
can't be scared out of who we are, and that's a victory, folks."

Richard Stamp, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Foundation, which filed briefs
supporting the government in the case, called the ruling a "disappointment" and 
an example of judges "clearly making it up as they go along."

Mr. Stamp said the court had ignored its own precedents justifying the use of 
tribunals instead of courts martial, and was substituting its own judgment for 
the president's in his role of commander in chief. "For the court to step into 
the war-making arena, where it has no expertise, is inappropriate," he said.

Mr. Stamp also said he believed the court "has set itself up against both the 
Congress and the president" by rejecting a law passed last year that stripped 
the Supreme Court over jurisdiction over appeals by Guantánamo inmates.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, 
which represents more than 200 Guantánamo inmates, said he was "thrilled" by the
ruling, which he said fully vindicated the views of administration critics.

"What this says to the administration is that you can no longer decide 
arbitrarily what you want to do with people," Mr. Ratner said in a telephone 
briefing for reporters. "It upheld the rule of law in this country and 
determined that the executive has gone beyond the constitution and international

Michael Greenberger, who teaches the law of counterterrorism at the University 
of Maryland law school, said the court could easily have found technical reasons
to avoid so sweeping a ruling.

"Obviously they felt strongly not only about the legal issues involved but about
what this meant for the United States' position as the pre-eminent supporter of 
the rule of law worldwide," Mr. Greenberger said.

He said the ruling showed that "it's not enough to repeat the mantra that we're 
fighting a war on terror and therefore all power resides in the executive 

Despite the rebuke to administration policies, Mr. Greenberger said, the ruling 
may clear the way to a resolution of the murky status of detainees held at 
Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in secret detention centers run by the Central 
Intelligence Agency.

"The court really rescued the administration by taking it out of this quagmire 
it's been in," he said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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