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Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

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Significance: In this ruling, the Supreme Court held that the president did not have the authority to establish military commissions to try foreign nationals without congressional authorization. In addition, the Court held that foreign detainees had the rights guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of War.


After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched its war on terrorism, targeting members of the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan. The U.S. military captured hundreds of foreign nationals, many of whom were taken to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The administration argued that these prisoners lacked prisoner of war status because they were not fighting in uniform for an organized country. The administration insisted that the prisoners were therefore not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The prisoners were kept in indefinite detention, without counsel and usually without specific charges of illegal acts. In Rasul v. Bush (2004), the Court displeased the Bush administration by ruling that the detainees had the right to petition for writs of habeas corpus relief in federal courts. In a presidential order of 2001, the Bush administration had made plans to have foreign nationals accused of war crimes to be tried before special military commissions. To defend the legality of the order, the administration referred to the inherent powers of the president as commander in chief and to the congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001. In addition, administration lawyers pointed to the precedents of World War II, when the Court had approved trials of such a policy. Civil libertarians disliked several aspects of the commissions. They noted that the commissions were not entirely independent of the executive; in addition, the commissions could use evidence obtained by torture, as well as secret evidence that the defendant's lawyer could not examine. The commissions’ verdicts, moreover, could not be appealed to civilian courts. Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national who had worked as a driver for Osama bin Laden, was one of the suspect terrorists captured in Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo. He and nine other detainees were charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Hamdan's lawyers petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the commissions were illegal, that Hamdan was entitled to all the protections of a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions, and that he should not be tried until his status was determined. The district court partly ruled in his favor, but the Court of Appeals endorsed the government's position. Reviewing Hamdan's habeas corpus petition, the Supreme Court rendered the administration a major setback in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), which held, by 5-3 vote, that the special commissions were illegal under both the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Writing the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens further found that Congress's Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) did not expand presidential war powers. Even if special commissions were later to be authorized by congressional authority, they would have to include all the procedures of the UCMJ and the Geneva Convention. Stevens firmly rejected the administration's claim that the detainees did not merit the protections of the Geneva Convention because they lacked the status of lawful combatants. He insisted that each detainee was entitled to the convention's full protections until a court ruled him not to be a prisoner of war. The three dissenting justices were sharply critical of the majority's ruling. Clarence Thomas wrote that the United States was engaged in a war with “a worldwide, hydra-headed enemy, who lurks in the shadows conspiring to reproduce the atrocities of September 11, 2001.” Although most observers expected that Congress would eventually authorize the creation of military commissions, the Court's 2006 decision was still important, for it helped to clarify the constitutional prerogatives of the president as commander in chief of the military.