Civil Liberties and Enemy Combatants: Why the Supreme Court's Widely Praised Rulings Are Bad for America

By Silverglate, Harvey | Reason, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Civil Liberties and Enemy Combatants: Why the Supreme Court's Widely Praised Rulings Are Bad for America


Silverglate, Harvey, Reason


IF YOU WERE relying solely on media accounts for guidance, you would have gotten the impression that the Supreme Court's June 28 rulings on "enemy combatants" were a clean sweep for civil liberties. With few exceptions, reporters and commentators interpreted the rulings as unwavering affirmations of the judicial branch's authority in the face of an overreaching executive intent on detaining, indefinitely and incommunicado, citizens and noncitizens designated as enemies in the war on terror.

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe opined in a July 1 Wall Street Journal op-ed that "the transparency these opinions demand as a hallmark of defensible detention could not be further from the spirit of secrecy that the administration's briefs and arguments insist is an indispensable element of intelligence-gathering detentions." A June 29 Newsday headline labeled the rulings a "Setback for Bush Administration" and a "Win for Detainees." A July 4 Los Angeles Times article echoed that sentiment, praising the Court for its declaration that "the rule of law stands above the commander in chief, even in times of war and national emergency."

Civil liberties groups were similarly effusive. A press release from the American Civil Liberties Union gushed that "the Supreme Court has sent a powerful message that the end does not justify the means, and that it will not sit on the sidelines while the rule of law is ignored." The normally hard-headed Timothy Lynch of the libertarian Cato Institute, which filed powerful amicus briefs in two of the enemy combatant cases, was quoted in a June 29 Dallas Morning News story as saying he didn't "see a win in this anywhere for the administration."

The reality, however, was significantly less uplifting. Berkeley law professor John Yoo, a former official in John Ashcroft's Justice Department, concluded that the Court had left the government "with sufficient flexibility to effectively prevail in the future." The effects of the rulings have yet to be fully felt since the proceedings have a long way to go before they are finally played out, but the fine print of the Court's controlling opinions, combined with the manner in which the government is proceeding with enemy combatant hearings, strongly suggests that widespread proclamations about the triumph of liberty were premature and probably in serious error. Each decision included enough qualifications and concessions to eviscerate in practice the due process rights that the justices praised in theory.

That Great Writ Sure Is Great

The first case the Court chose to consider, Rasul v. Bush, involved a group of prisoners purportedly captured fighting for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and held in a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The chief question in the case was whether Guantanamo, governed by a 100-year-old perpetual lease between the U.S. and Cuba, was beyond the reach of American courts. (The prison population in Guantanamo was composed exclusively of non-U.S, citizens, perhaps so it wouldn't appear that Americans were being herded into distant gulags.) Lawyers for the detainees filed habeas corpus petitions with the federal district court in Washington, D.C., eventually appealing to the Supreme Court in order to compel the government to justify the inmates' detention.

In a majority opinion written by John Paul Stevens, he and four other justices, joined by Anthony Kennedy in a concurring opinion, rejected the Bush administration's claim that the courts had no power to review the military's actions in Guantanamo. Addressing what the Court termed "the narrow but important question of whether the United States courts lack jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention" of foreign nationals captured abroad and held in Guantanamo, the majority quoted the late Justice Robert Jackson's dissent in a 1953 case involving habeas corpus relief for aliens held in U.S. custody:

"Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since [King] John, at Runymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. …

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