by James Oliphant
In a body-blow to the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that prisoners held at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have a constitutional right to challenge their detentions in civilian federal courts.
The administration had argued that the military commission system set up by the Pentagon to try suspected terrorists provided enough to satisfy constitutional requirements. The court Thursday disagreed, introducing an element of uncertainty into what happens next regarding the 270 or so remaining detainees held at Guantanamo.
The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was always believed to be the crucial swing vote in the case. Chief Justice John Roberts dissented on behalf of the conservative members of the court, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
"The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times," Kennedy wrote.
The rebuke of the administration was its third loss before the court on issues relating to the detainees, some of whom have been held in the prisons since 2002 without charges, and this time, the court seemed to emphatically say enough was enough. The court first ruled in 2004 that detainees had the right of habeas corpus--the ability to challenge the basis for an extended detention beyond the normal criminal appeals process--by finding that the federal habeas statute granted them those rights.
Congress responded by passing an act that stripped away those statutory rights. The cases decided Thursday reviewed that act and found that Congress' act was invalid for constitutional reasons, saying that Congress can only suspend habeas in incidences of rebellion or invasion.
"The Supreme Court has finally brought an end to one of our nation's most egregious injustices," said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the public interest group that brought suit on behalf of 37 detainees in the case. "It has finally given the men held at Guantánamo the justice that they have long deserved. By granting the writ of habeas corpus, the Supreme Court recognizes a rule of law established hundreds of years ago and essential to American jurisprudence since our nation's founding. This six-year-long nightmare is a lesson in how fragile our constitutional protections truly are in the hands of an overzealous executive."
Said Kathryn Kolbert, president of the liberal advocacy group People For the American Way: "The Supreme Court has rebuked President Bush's vision of the presidency as an office of limitless power, and declared that the president of a free nation cannot simply lock people up and throw away the key like some third-world dictator. This is a stinging blow to the administration's lawless policies and its allies in Congress."
The court also said that the appeals system set up by the congressional act, which gave detainees the right to a limited appeal to the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., was an inadequate substitute for habeas corpus rights.
Roberts in dissent embraced the government's argument in the case, saying the detainees had been given "the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants."