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Guantanamo Detainees’ Fate at Stake in Boumediene


 

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday in Boumediene v. Bush. Most of the 34 detainees whose fate hangs in the balance in this case were brought to Guantánamo after being picked up by bounty hunters or tribesmen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet the Bush administration has fought hard to keep them away from any independent court where they could contest the legality of their confinement.

In February, two judges on a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the provision of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that strips the statutory rights of all Guantánamo detainees to have their habeas corpus petitions heard by U.S. federal courts. The Supreme Court will decide in Boumediene whether these men still have a constitutional right to habeas corpus.

If the lower court decision is left to stand, they can be held there for the rest of their lives without ever having a federal judge determine the legality of their detention.

Background on the Guantánamo cases

In June 2004, the Supreme Court decided Rasul v. Bush, which upheld the right of those detained at Guantánamo to have their petitions for habeas corpus heard by U.S. courts, under the federal habeas statute.

The ink was barely dry on Rasul when Bush created the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, ostensibly to comply with the Rasul ruling. But these tribunals amounted to an end-run around Rasul. They were established to determine whether a detainee is an enemy combatant.

At the end of last term, the Supreme Court struck down Bush’s military commissions in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld because they did not comply with due process guarantees in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. Military commissions are criminal courts to try prisoners for war crimes.

Then, in October of last year, in another end run, this time around Hamdan, Bush rammed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 through a Congress terrified of appearing soft on terror in the upcoming midterm elections. The Act does many things, but it notably amends the habeas corpus statute to strip statutory habeas rights from all Guantánamo detainees.

Do detainees retain constitutional right to habeas corpus?

The two-judge majority in Boumediene upheld the Military Commissions Act’s stripping of statutory habeas jurisdiction that the Supreme Court had recognized in Rasul.

Art. I of the Constitution contains the Suspension Clause, which says that Congress can suspend the right of habeas corpus only in times of rebellion or invasion when the public safety may require it. We are not now in a state of invasion or rebellion, and Congress did not make such a finding.

The two-judge majority in Boumediene said: (1) in the absence of a statutory habeas right (which Congress eliminated in the Military Commissions Act), the Constitution only protects the right of habeas corpus that was recognized at common law in 1789; (2) the law in 1789 did not provide the right of habeas corpus to aliens held by the government outside of the sovereig

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