Supreme Court flips, will hear detainee claims
San Francisco Chronicle
William Glaberson, New York Times
Saturday, June 30, 2007

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed course Friday and agreed to hear claims of Guantanamo detainees that they have a right to challenge their detentions in American federal courts.

The decision, announced in a brief order released Friday, sets the stage for a legal fight that appears likely to shape debates in the Bush administration about how to close a detention center that has become a lightning rod for international criticism. More than 370 men are being held at the naval station on a scrubby corner of Cuba.

The unusual order, which required votes from five of the nine justices, rescinded an April order in which the justices declined to review a federal appeals court decision that ruled against the detainees.

The court offered no explanation for the change. But the order meant that the justices will hear the full appeal in their next term, perhaps by December. The court rarely grants such motions for reconsideration. Some experts on Supreme Court procedure said they knew of no similar reversal by the court in decades.

After two earlier Supreme Court decisions since 2004 that have been setbacks for the administration's Guantanamo detention policies, the order Friday signaled that the justices had determined to resolve another politically and legally freighted detention issue.

"Finally, after nearly six years, the Supreme Court is going to rule on the ultimate question: Does the Constitution protect the people detained at Guantanamo Bay?" said Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the last Supreme Court case dealing with the Guantanamo detainees.

In that case, decided last June, the justices struck down the administration's planned system for war crimes trials of detainees.

The new case sets up a test of one of the central principles of the administration's detention policies: that it can hold "enemy combatants" without allowing them habeas corpus proceedings, which have been used in English and American law for centuries to challenge the legality of detentions.

The Justice Department declined to comment in any detail on Friday's order, which it had strenuously opposed. Erik Ablin, a spokesman, did say, "We are disappointed with the decision, but are confident in our legal arguments and look forward to presenting them before the court."

The administration has argued that permitting habeas corpus suits by foreigners who are held as enemy combatants outside the United States would paralyze the military during wartime by giving courts the power to review commanders' decisions. In response, Congress passed a law last year stripping the federal courts of the power to hear such habeas corpus cases filed by Guantanamo detainees.

One issue in the case is whether Congress had the power to enact that law, because a constitutional provision bars the government from suspending habeas corpus except in "cases of rebellion or invasion."

Lawyers on both sides of the issue said the Supreme Court's review is also likely to focus on the fairness of military hearings that the administration has established to determine whether detainees are enemy combatants and should be detained. In the closed hearings, known as combatant status review tribunals, detainees are not permitted lawyers and cannot see much of the evidence against them.

The detainees' lawyers have said the hearings are sham proceedings. On June 22, detainees' lawyers filed an affidavit by the first military participant in the hearing process to criticize secret hearing procedures.

In the affidavit, Stephen Abraham, a reserve military intelligence officer, described the process of gathering evidence as haphazard and said commanding officers pressed to have the panels find that detainees were properly held as enemy combatants.

The politics of Guantanamo in Washington

House Democrats want to cut President Bush's budget for Guantanamo Bay prison in half, beating the administration to the punch in shutting down the facility for terrorism suspects.

The White House says Bush is seeking a way to close the U.S. prison in Cuba and transfer more than 370 suspects elsewhere, possibly including the maximum-security military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. With no timetable announced by Bush, Congress is moving ahead on its own. In July, the House Appropriations Committee is expected to propose funding only half of Guantanamo's budget in the military's annual spending bill.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that the Bush administration wants to close the prison and is working hard to find a suitable alternative, but he did not say how much progress was being made.

Source: Associated Press

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