Yesterday’s historic Supreme Court decisions guaranteeing enemy combatants in United States custody their day in court are an important triumph for the rule of law. The court recognized the practical necessity of allowing the president authority to detain enemy fighters. But it forcefully ruled that there are limits to that presidential power.
The decisions, in three related cases, are a stinging rebuke of President George W. Bush’s dangerous assertion that for as long as the nation is at war, he could imprison anyone he labeled the enemy indefinitely, without criminal charges, access to lawyers or any court review. Had he pulled off that audacious power grab, Bush and future presidents would have had unfettered, wartime power to withhold the protections of the Constitution at will. Rights subject to such a presidential fiat would be meaningless.
A majority of the court said instead that enemy combatants incarcerated by the government, whether they are U.S. citizens or not, are entitled to due process, which must include “a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker.”
The rulings came in three cases, all involving enemy combatants but different circumstances. Two of the cases were filed on behalf of U.S. citizens in military brigs in the United States. But Yaser Hamdi was taken into custody in Afghanistan, allegedly fighting for the Taliban. Jose Padilla was pulled off a plane in Chicago and accused of plotting to explode a dirty bomb in the United States. Padilla’s case, which was filed in New York, has to be filed instead in South Carolina, where he is being held. But the court made it clear that both men have the right to legal counsel and that the government will have to justify to a court’s satisfaction its decision to label them enemy combatants.
The third case was filed for a handful of the hundreds of foreign nationals detained at the U.S. Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay. Bush insisted that because they are not U.S. citizens and are being held outside the country, U.S. courts have no jurisdiction. The court saw that argument for what it is, a thin legal fiction. Under a treaty with Cuba, the United States has exercised complete control of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay for more than 100 years.
The unambiguous message from the court? A state of war is not a blank check for the president.