Surpreme court appears split on guantanamo prisoners
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Supreme Court Appears Split on Guantanamo Prisoners
Tue Apr 20, 2004 01:49 PM ET
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court appeared deeply split on Tuesday on whether foreigners at an American naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba can use U.S. courts to challenge their detentions, the first test of President Bush's policies in his war on terrorism.
Several justices stressed they were examining only whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction, not the merits of the claims by prisoners, who say they are innocent and have been held illegally in violation of their civil rights.
John Gibbons, a retired judge who represented the detainees, began his argument by saying, "What's at stake in the case is the authority of the federal courts to uphold the rule of law."
He said the U.S. government had created "a lawless enclave" at Guantanamo. About 595 foreign nationals have been designated "enemy combatants" and are being held at the base as suspected al Qaeda members or Taliban fighters.
Government lawyer Theodore Olson replied that the federal habeas corpus law that allows prisoners to challenge their detention does not apply to the Guantanamo detainees.
He argued that Cuba, under a lease with the United States concerning the base, has ultimate sovereignty and that places the detainees beyond the control of U.S. courts.
Most of those held at the base were seized during the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban government in Afghanistan and against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The first detainees arrived at Guantanamo in January of 2002.
Two of the detainees have been charged and face military commissions while four have been given lawyers. The rest are being held without charges, without access to lawyers and without access to courts or a proceeding of any kind.
The court's four more liberal justices appeared skeptical of Olson's arguments.
Justice David Souter asked whether bringing people from Afghanistan to Guantanamo was "the same thing in functional terms" as if they had been brought to Washington, D.C.
Olson sought to rely on a 1950 Supreme Court ruling which held U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction to consider challenges by German prisoners captured by U.S. forces during World War II while fighting with Japanese troops in China.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the German prisoners had been tried and convicted by a military commission while the Guantanamo detainees have not been tried or convicted.
NO TRIALS FOR GUATANAMO DETAINEES
Justice John Paul Stevens also questioned whether the 1950 ruling applied to the Guantanamo detainees.
And Justice Stephen Breyer cited a number of problems with Olson's argument, including that the government's power would be unchecked and its interpretation of the habeas law may be contrary to "several hundred years of British history."
Several conservative justices appeared sympathetic to the government's position.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the rights under habeas corpus have never extended "to the battlefield" and he expressed concern about federal judges deciding such cases.
Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress, rather than the Supreme Court, would be better placed to decide whether to change the habeas corpus law to allow jurisdiction. "Congress could do all that," Scalia said.
It was not clear from the arguments how Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, moderate conservatives who often control the outcome on the divided court, might vote. Justice Clarence Thomas did not ask any questions, but he usually votes with Rehnquist and Scalia.
The justices next hear arguments on April 28 on two more cases that involve whether Americans who have been designated "enemy combatants" can be held by the military in this nation.
Rulings in all the cases are due by the end of June.