Supreme Court Affirms Detainees' Right to Use Courts

By DAVID STOUT

The New York Times

June 28, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 28 — The Supreme Court ruled today that people being held by the United States as enemy combatants can challenge their detention in American courts — the court's most important statement in decades on the balance between personal liberties and national security.

The justices declared their findings in three rulings, two of them involving American citizens and the other addressing the status of foreigners being held at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Taken together, they were a significant setback for the Bush administration's approach to the campaign against terrorism that began on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Due process demands that a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker," an 8-to-1 majority held in the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a Saudi-born United States citizen seized in Afghanistan in 2001. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the basic outlines of the decision.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the campaign against terrorism notwithstanding, "a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

In the Guantánamo case, the court ruled, 6 to 3, that federal courts have the jurisdiction to consider challenges to the custody of foreigners. The finding repudiated a central argument of the administration.

"Aliens at the base, like American citizens, are entitled to invoke the federal courts' authority," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. "United States courts have traditionally been open to nonresident aliens."

The dissenters were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

And in the other case involving an American citizen, José Padilla, the court ruled on what at first glance was a technical issue: that Mr. Padilla filed his habeas corpus petition in the wrong court. A 5-to-4 majority said he should have filed in federal court in South Carolina, since he has been held in a brig in Charleston, rather than in the Southern District of New York.

The majority said, too, that the proper target for his case is not Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld but, rather, Cmdr. Melanie Marr, who is in charge of the brig. "This rule serves the important purpose of prevent forum shopping by habeas petitioners," the majority held.

Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion, joined by Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the rulings historic and said they embodied "a strong repudiation of the administration's arguments that its actions in the war on terrorism are beyond the rule of law and unreviewable by American courts."

Although the cases of Mr. Hamdi, Mr. Padilla and the Guantánamo detainees all arose from the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and weighed national security against personal liberty, they were considerably different from one another in circumstances.

The Guantánamo case involved foreigners: about 600 men of various nationalities seized in Afghanistan and Pakistan during operations against the Taliban; 16 of the detainees, all maintaining their innocence, filed suit. Their case, Rasul v. Bush, No. 03-334, was argued before the justices on April 20.

Besides the basic issue in their case, there was a secondary but still vital question involving the status of Guantánamo Bay itself.

Since a 1950 Supreme Court case has been interpreted to mean that enemy combatants held outside the United States have no right to habeas corpus, the detainees had to show through their lawyers that Guantánamo Bay is functionally, if not formally, part of the United States.

On the one hand, a long-ago treaty with Cuba said that it retained sovereignty over the base. On the other hand, the treaty also said that the United States exercised jurisdiction and control.

In any event, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last year that the federal courts lacked jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions from the detainees — a position that the Supreme Court rejected today.

As for the Hamdi and Padilla cases, although they both involve American citizens, the similarities largely end there. For one, Mr. Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan, where the Bush administration contends he was fighting for the Taliban. (His father asserted that he had gone to Afghanistan to do relief work.) Mr. Padilla was arrested at O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

Their cases, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, No. 03-6696, and Rumsfeld v. Padilla, No. 03-1027, were argued together on April 28, having reached the Supreme Court by opposite paths.

Mr. Hamdi's lawyers were appealing a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond. That court held last year that Mr. Hamdi was entitled to challenge his detention by petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus. But the Fourth Circuit dismissed his petition after holding that the government had provided ample justification for classifying him an enemy combatant.

In the Padilla case, the government brought the appeal to the Supreme Court in hope of overturning a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York City. Citing a law passed by Congress in 1971 to prohibit the detention of citizens without explicit authorization by Congress, the Second Circuit found that the president was without authority to detain Mr. Padilla, despite the Congressional resolution authorizing military force after the Sept. 11 attacks.