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Supreme Court Challenges Prisoner Detention at Guantanamo Bay, Upholding Habeas Corpus for Non-U.S. Citizens

Constitutional lawyers have been wringing their hands over the Bush Administration’s repeated pushing of the boundaries of executive power over George W. Bush’s two terms, but few court decisions have seen fit to challenge the president’s expansion of his own powers for the so-called “War on Terror.” From warrantless wiretapping to signing statements to “advanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners, Bush’s critics have accused him of wielding near-complete executive power over his tenure in office with little questioning and accountability.

Last week, however, the Supreme Court stepped into the breach with a decision that can only be seen as a rebuke of the Bush Administration’s assertions of executive power. Fittingly, the decision was related to one of the most controversial features of Bush’s “War on Terror”: Guantanamo Bay.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that as “enemy combatants,” detainees at Guantanamo Bay do not have the right to petition U.S. courts challenging the legality of their detention. In particular, the Supreme Court stripped the legality of a provision in the 2006 Military Commissions Act that prevented U.S. judges from hearing legal appeals filed on behalf of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. That provision instead granted authority to military commissions, with a very limited recourse to appeal.

The very implementation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba came as a result of the Bush Administration’s belief that prisoners it terms as “enemy combatants” should not have access to the American legal system, including representation by criminal defense attorneys, exporting their entire detention and trial process to outside the United States.

However, the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, offered the opinion that the military review process advocated by Bush was “an inadequate substitute for habeas corpus.” The writ of corpus is a right granted in Article One of the U.S. Constitution that allows prisoners to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment by demanding that they be advised of the charges for which they are imprisoned.

Lawyers for the detainees argued that the prisoners, many of whom have been detained for up to six years, have not been afforded the right to view the evidence against them or challenge this evidence before an impartial judge. Lawyers for the administration, on the other hand, have argued that the writ of habeas corpus does not apply to these prisoners, who violated the law of war by engaging terrorism and thus should not be protected by the Geneva Convention or the Constitution.

Justice Antonin Scalia read the dissenting opinion from the bench, stating that “the Nation will live to regret what the court has done today,” claiming also that “it will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”

The decision comes just a few weeks before the first of the trials involving Guantanamo prisoners are set to begin.

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