by James Vicini
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court placed the first limits on President Bush’s war on terrorism on Monday and ruled that terror suspects can use the American judicial system to challenge their confinement.
The historic moves on the day before the end of the high court’s term marked a bitter defeat for Bush’s assertion of sweeping presidential powers to indefinitely hold “enemy combatants” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was the court’s first rulings on Bush’s terrorism policies.
In one ruling, the court said the nearly 600 foreign terror suspects held for two years at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba could turn to American courts to challenge their confinement. In another ruling, it said an American terror suspect held in his nation is entitled to a chance to contest the government’s decision.
“Today’s historic rulings are a strong repudiation of the administration’s argument that its actions in the war on terrorism are beyond the rule of law and unreviewable by American courts,” Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union said.
By a 6-3 vote, the justices ruled American courts can consider the claims of Guantanamo Bay prisoners — suspected al Qaeda members or Taliban fighters — who said in their lawsuits they were being held illegally in violation of their rights.
“What is presently at stake is only whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the executive’s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
The ruling did not address the merits of the claims, and the detainees still could face a long legal battle to win their release or major changes in the conditions of their confinement.
But families of some Guantanamo Bay detainees and their lawyers said in London the ruling could mean the beginning of the end of the prison camp.
And lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the case to the high court, said they would seek access to their clients within the week.
In the second ruling, the court divided by a 5-4 vote to rule that Bush has the power to detain American citizen Yaser Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan as a suspected Taliban fighter and who has been held in a U.S. military jail. It said the U.S. Congress authorized the detention of combatants in the narrow circumstances alleged in the case.
FAIR CHANCE TO REBUT GOVERNMENT
But in the more important part of the ruling, the justices by an 8-1 vote ruled he should get a fair opportunity to rebut the government’s case for detaining him.
Four court members would have released Hamdi, saying his detention was unauthorized. Two of them — Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — joined the main opinion by four other justices who said Hamdi should have a meaningful opportunity to offer evidence that he is not an enemy combatant.
The opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said constitutional due process rights demand that a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant must be given “a meaningful opportunity” to contest the detention before a neutral party.
“History and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others,” O’Connor wrote.
She left open the possibility the standards set out in the ruling could be met by military tribunals.
In the Hamdi case, only Justice Clarence Thomas of the nine court members totally supported the Bush administration’s position.
In a third ruling, the court decided the case of terror suspect Jose Padilla on narrow procedural grounds, ruling he should have brought the challenge in South Carolina instead of New York, a decision that sidestepped whether Bush has the power to detain him. The high court allows him to bring his case again.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry hailed the rulings. “I would have wished this administration would have done what made sense several years ago and what was in keeping with the values and spirit of our country,” he said.
Enemy Combatants Win Right to U.S. Courts
excerpted from 28 June 2004 | Associated Press
The Bush administration contends that as “enemy combatants,” the men are not entitled to the usual rights of prisoners of war set out in the Geneva Conventions. Enemy combatants are also outside the constitutional protections for ordinary criminal suspects, the government has claimed.
The administration argued that the president alone has authority to order their detention, and that courts have no business second-guessing that decision.