In an major decision yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration's plan to conduct trials of accused Guantanamo Bay prisoners utilizing military tribunals.
The Court held that the President's plan exceeded his constitutional authority, even in wartime, and further found that the proposed tribunals failed to provide even minimum legal protections, in violation of International Law and the Geneva Conventions
The decision has wide political and legal implications, and may well bring into question the legality of other controversial Bush administration measures, including a programme of domestic wiretapping in the absence of Court oversight.
This report, excerpted from Yahoo News summarizes the Court's decision:
Supreme Court blocks Guantanamo trials
GINA HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court rebuked President Bush and his anti-terror policies Thursday, ruling that his plan to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in military tribunals violates U.S. and international law.
The court declared 5-3 that the president's attempt to resurrect a type of military trial last used in the aftermath of World War II violates U.S. military law and the Geneva conventions that set international standards for dealing with people captured in armed conflicts.
The ruling focused on Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a one-time driver for Osama bin Laden who has spent four years in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He faces a single count of conspiring to commit terrorism...
The decision could have a broad impact on the administration's legal justification for many of its policies in the global fight against terrorism, from eavesdropping to detention policies in Iraq...
The majority found that Congress had not given Bush the authority to create the special type of military trial and that the president did not provide a valid reason for the new system. The justices also said the proposed trials did not provide for minimum legal protections under international law...
While the administration could come up with a new system, a better option would be to hold regular military courts-martial for detainees, the high court said. Those trials, used for soldiers, provide somewhat similar legal protections to those that defendants receive in U.S. courts.
The Bush administration did not appear ready to accept that...
In "The significance of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld," Glenn Greenwald, a New York constitutional lawyer and commentator, offers the seminal legal analysis of this decision:
The Supreme Court today, by a 5-3 decision (.pdf) in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, held that the Bush administration's military commissions at Guantanamo (a) exceed the president's legal authorization given by Congress and (b) violate the law of war, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions which, the Court held, applies to all detainees in any armed conflict, including Al Qaeda members.
This is a very significant legal defeat, in several ways, for the administration. Following are preliminary observations about this decision:
(1) The Supreme Court held [Sec. VI(D)(ii) of the court's opinion] that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to all detainees captured in military conflicts, including Al Qaeda members or other "enemy combatants," and not merely (as the Administration asserted) to soldiers who fight for established countries which are signatories to the Conventions. Article 3 requires that detainees be tried by a "regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples," and the Court ruled [Sec. VI(D)(iii)] that the military commissions established at Guantanamo violate that requirement because they are not regularly constituted tribunals but instead are specially constituted courts in the absence of any emergency. Thus, under the Geneva Conventions, any and all detainees captured in armed conflict can be tried only by a "regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."
(2) The Court did not rule on whether it could, in the absence of Congressional mandates, compel the administration to abide by the Geneva Conventions. The Court did not need to rule on this question, because it found [Sec. IV] that the administration was required by Congress -- as part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ") -- to comply with the rules of law when creating and implementing military commissions. Thus, the Court enforced the Congressional statutory requirement that the administration comply with the rules of law with regard to all military commissions, and rejected any claims by the administration to possess authority to override or act in violation of that statute.
(3) The Court dealt several substantial blows to the administration's theories of executive power beyond the military commission context. And, at the very least, the Court severely weakened, if not outright precluded, the administration's legal defenses with regard to its violations of FISA.
... More broadly, the Supreme Court repeatedly emphasized the shared powers which Congress and the Executive possess with regard to war matters. Indeed, in his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy expressly applied the mandates of Justice Jackson's framework in Youngstown (the Steel Seizure case) on the ground that this was a case where the adminstration's conduct (in creating military commissions) conflicted with Congressional statute (which requires such commissions to comply with the law of war). Applying Youngstown, Kennedy concluded that the President's powers in such a case are at their "lowest ebb" and must give way to Congressional law. In other words, Kennedy expressly found (and the Court itself implicitly held) that even with regard to matters as central to national security as the detention and trial of Al Qaeda members, the President does not have the power to ignore or violate Congressional law...
(4) This decision illustrates just how critical is the current composition of the Supreme Court. The decision was really 5-4 (because Roberts already ruled in favor of the administration in the lower court). The Justice who wrote the majority opinion, John Paul Stevens, is 86 years old, and as Justice Blackmun once famously warned, he "cannot remain on this Court forever." If the Bush administration is permitted to replace Stevens with yet another worshipper of executive power, the next challenge to the Bush administration's theories of unchecked power could very easily result, by a 5-4 vote, in the opposite outcome.
(5) Congress can reverse almost every aspect of the decision as it specifically pertains to these military commissions. It could abrogate any treaties it wants. It could amend the UCMJ to allow military commissions with the rules established by the President. It has already stripped the Court of jurisdiction to hear future habeas corpus challenges by Guantanamo detainees, and could act to further strip the Court of jurisdiction in these areas. We will undoubtedly hear calls by Pat Roberts, John Cornyn, Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn (and perhaps Joe Lieberman?) et al. for legislation which would accomplish exactly that.
Nonetheless, opponents of monarchical power should celebrate this decision. It has been some time since real limits were placed on the Bush administration in the area of national security. The rejection of the President's claims to unlimited authority with regard to how Al Qaeda prisoners are treated is extraordinary and encouraging by any measure. The decision is an important step towards re-establishing the principle that there are three co-equal branches of government and that the threat of terrorism does not justify radical departures from the principles of government on which our country was founded.
... The more I read and think about this opinion, the greater a death blow I think it deals -- at least on the legal front -- to the administration's Yoo theory of unlimited executive power. ... "Whether or not the President has independent power, absent congressional authorization, to convene military commissions, he may not disregard limitations that Congress has, in proper exercise of its own war powers, placed on his powers.
Whether intended or not, that paragraph, by itself, dispenses with the central misconception -- the myth -- most frequently relied upon by Bush followers in defending the administration's violations of FISA. Specifically, they assert that cases which, pre-FISA, held that the President has inherent authority to eavesdrop mean that Congress cannot regulate that power.
But as the Court today explained... the President "may not disregard limitations that Congress . . . in proper exercise of its own war powers" imposes. That principle is based upon "the powers granted jointly to the President and Congress in time of war." Thus, even if the President possesses the power "absent congressional authorization" to, for instance, eavesdrop (or torture people), "he may not disregard limitations that Congress" imposes on such powers.
To appreciate what a severe blow this opinion struck to the broad outlines of the Bush administration's theory of executive power, compare the Court's holding that the President "may not disregard limitations that Congress has, in proper exercise of its own war powers, placed on his powers" -- powers which include its own "war powers" -- with the authoritarian claim of unlimited power asserted in the infamous Yoo memorandum:Neither statute, however, can place any limits on the President's
determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make.
...Just as Congress denied the President authority to create military commissions which violate the law of war, so, too, has Congress denied the President the authority to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants (and to torture detainees, etc.), and -- just as is the case with military commissions -- there is simply no legal justification for the President to ignore those laws.
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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