Last week, in two separate rulings
regarding the Bush Administration’s methods of detaining
terror suspects, the Supreme Court made a crucial stand defending
the right of those held by the government to challenge their
detentions in court. The rulings, which struck a delicate balance
between the need to interrogate and punish terrorists and rights
this country holds dear, deserve to be applauded. However, some
questions remain regarding both the application of these rulings
and a similar third case that was dismissed on technical
grounds.

Janna Hutz

In a case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on
behalf of 16 foreign citizens held at the United States military
base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Supreme Court ruled that those
held by the government as enemy combatants in Cuba have the right
to challenge their detentions in federal court. The 16 individuals
allege that they are innocent of any terrorist activity and were
apprehended mistakenly in Afghanistan during the chaos of war.

The Administration held that they have no right to challenge
their detention, relying on a World War II era precedent that no
federal court had jurisdiction over detentions outside the United
States territory. The Supreme Court argued that since Guantanamo
Bay has been exclusively under American control for over a century,
it is subject to the habeas corpus provision of the Constitution.
The ruling left unclear, however, whether the Court would hold
habeas corpus to apply to detainees held at other foreign
locations. Thus, this ruling may have the perverse effect of
actually encouraging the military to rely instead on secret
detention camps abroad; potentially in use by the CIA, these camps
offer few legal protections and are subject to little
oversight.

The court also addressed the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, an
American citizen apprehended by the Northern Alliance in
Afghanistan in 2001 and since held by the U.S. military, without
charges, as an enemy combatant. Sandra Day O’Connor, on
behalf of the majority, wrote the controlling opinion, stating that
Hamdi could be held as an enemy combatant but denying him an
ability to challenge this status in court violated his due
process.

In the most interesting case concerning the detention of
suspected terrorists, however, the Supreme Court delayed taking a
position, ruling instead on technical grounds. Jose Padilla, an
American citizen arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare
International Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to make a
radioactive “dirty bomb,” but since held without being
charged, filed suit challenging his detention in New York against
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The Court, however, held that
Padilla should have filed suit against the military officer in
charge of his detention in South Carolina, significantly delaying a
ruling on Padilla’s case. The case, which was effectively
sent back district court, will eventually return to the Supreme
Court in the future. Should the court not side with Padilla, the
Administration will have a Supreme Court precedent allowing any
American to be detained as a terror suspect indefinitely without
due process.

Although these rulings clearly have served to check the
unprecedented usurpations of legal power by the Bush
Administration, they open the door for egregious conduct by
American officials outside United States territory. Furthermore, in
the case of Padilla, a decision is needed as soon as possible, not
only to ensure Padilla due process, but also to establish more
stringent guidelines for prosecuting the war against terror.

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