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Supreme Court Rules Guantanamo Detainees Have Habeas Rights

Posted Jun 12, 2008 9:49 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a stunning defeat to the Bush administration in a ruling that gives detainees at Guantanamo Bay a right to challenge their detention in federal courts.

The court in a 5-4 decision said Congress may suspend habeas corpus only when the country faces rebellion or invasion, SCOTUSblog reports.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined the court's liberal justices and wrote the majority opinion, the Associated Press reports. "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times," he wrote.

ABA President William H. Neukom said in a statement that the ruling "helps restore the credibility of the United States as a leading advocate and model for the rule of law across the globe."

"Habeas corpus is the cornerstone of the rule of law in the United States," he said. "Adhering to this fundamental tenet of our legal system will simply require that we provide a fair process for determining which detainees should continue to be detained."

Kennedy's majority ruling found that habeas rights applied to the detainees, and that the government had not provided an adequate substitute.

The governing statute, the Detainee Treatment Act, gave the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit exclusive jurisdiction to review decisions of tribunals created to determine whether the detainees are enemy combatants.

The law was intended to give detainees more limited review that traditional habeas procedures, Kennedy said. The detainees do not have the assistance of lawyers before the combatant review tribunals and there are no limits on the admission of hearsay, creating a significant risk of errors.

Yet the federal appeals court reviewing a tribunal decision does not have explicit authority to order the release of a detainee and does not have the authority to allow the detainee to present additional exculpatory evidence discovered after the tribunal hearing.

“Where the underlying detention proceedings lack the necessary adversarial character, the detainee cannot be held responsible for all deficiencies in the record,” Kennedy said.

The government had contended that noncitizens detained as enemy combatants outside the country have no constitutional rights and no privilege of habeas corpus. Kennedy considered three factors and found that in this case, there are such rights.

Kennedy considered these factors:

  1. The citizenship and status of the detainee and the adequacy of the process to make the determination.

  2. The nature of the sites where the apprehension and detention took place.

  3. The practical obstacles to determining the petitioner’s entitlement to habeas.

Kennedy noted the detainees are contesting their status as enemy combatants and that procedural protections in hearings to determine their status are limited. And while the detainees were captured overseas, they are being held at Guantanamo, “within the constant jurisdiction of the United States.” And while the costs of granting habeas rights may be high, Kennedy said, the concerns are not controlling.

“It is true that before today the court has never held that noncitizens detained by our government in territory over which another country maintains de jure sovereignty have any rights under our Constitution,” Kennedy wrote. “But the cases before us lack any precise historical parallel.”

The dissent was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. "Today the court strikes down as inadequate the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants," he wrote.

The opinion is Boumediene v. Bush (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog).

In a second ruling on habeas, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that U.S. citizens held by the military in Iraq have a right to file a habeas case, according to SCOTUSblog. But the court said federal judges don't have the authority to bar the military's transfer of those individuals to Iraq for trial.

The court ruled in the case of Shawqi Omar, held in Iraq on accusations he assisted terrorism, and Mohammad Munaf, whose death sentence by an Iraqi court was recently overturned, the Associated Press reports.

The opinion is Munaf v. Geren (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog).

Updated several times to include additional information.

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