High Court Changes Mind on Detainee Appeals

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday reversed course, deciding to review whether Guantanamo Bay detainees may go to federal court to challenge their indefinite confinements. The Bush administration has argued that a new law strips courts of their jurisdiction to hear detainee cases.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case testing whether Guantanamo detainees can challenge their detentions in court. Just last April, the justices said they would not hear that case, but now they've changed their minds. Today's announcement came without comment on the very last day of the court's term. NPR justice reporter Ari Shapiro is covering this story. And Ari, who's suing here? Who wants to be heard before the Supreme Court?

ARI SHAPIRO: Human rights groups are suing in behalf of the Guantanamo detainees. And the question, basically, is whether they have the right to habeas corpus. This is a phrase that we've heard over and over and over again as Congress was debating this bill called the Military Commissions Act last year. And as that bill passed, it stripped habeas corpus.

It basically said the Guantanamo detainees cannot challenge their detention in US court, that they get a review at Guantanamo called the Combatant Status Review Tribunal. They can challenge the findings of that review, but they cannot go to court and say they were mistreated or they're not an enemy combatant, or this, that or the other. This case is an appeal of the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court's ruling that the Military Commissions Act is legitimate.

In other words, the D.C. Circuit upheld that law that Congress passed, stripping habeas corpus. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether the D.C. Circuit got it right.

INSKEEP: Although, as we mentioned, the court said before they didn't feel any need to hear this case. What's changed?

SHAPIRO: Well, we don't know exactly, because they made this announcement today without any comment. But back in April when they made the announcement, there was an interesting sort of side note to it. The court split. And in April, when they said they wouldn't hear this case, four justices said we're not going to take the case. Three justices said we would have taken this case.

But then two justices - Justice Stevens and Justice Kennedy - said, we're not going to agree to take this case right now, but there may come a day when we decide to take this case. If it looks like the Bush administration is playing games, playing tricks, prolonging this process, and so on, then we may someday decide to take this case, which today is what they've done.

INSKEEP: So we're speculating here, but it could have been news events driving this or could just have been more debate within the Supreme Court, among the justices.

SHAPIRO: Right. As you say, we have no clear cause and effect indication here. But there was one interesting development in the last week, which is that a Guantanamo lawyer submitted an affidavit. He's somebody who had worked on these Combatant Status Review Tribunals, these reviews at Guantanamo. And the affidavit basically said, these are not fair trials. They're not adequate ways to assess whether a person is an enemy combatant or not. The detainee lawyers submitted that affidavit to the Supreme Court for review and asked them to re-evaluate whether they would take this case or not. Now the justices have said without comment they're going to take it.

INSKEEP: So put this in terms of a single detainee at Guantanamo Bay, if you might, some guy who's been in a cell - perhaps there for months, perhaps there for years. What is at stake for him - or her, for that matter - in a situation like this?

SHAPIRO: Well, the extent to which they can challenge their presence there. But it's not just whether they are there or not, and whether they are an enemy combatant or not. The cases that were wiped out by this congressional legislation called the Military Commissions Act covered everything, from whether somebody is, in fact, an enemy combatant to whether somebody was denied a Koran, whether somebody was mistreated, whether somebody was denied medical abuse. All of the things that one might go to court to challenge about one's detention were involved in this massive body of cases that were thrown out by the Military Commissions Act, and that now the lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees are fighting to bring it back.

INSKEEP: You have a possibility of a flood of jailhouse lawsuits is what you have here.

SHAPIRO: That's what the Federal government says. They say, listen. Never before in the history of our country have we allowed enemies in wartime to use our own legal system against us. Of course, the detainees' lawyers say the process that exists is inadequate, and we need some way to really determine whether these are enemy combatants or not.

INSKEEP: All right, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro telling us that today, the Supreme Court announced it would hear a case from detainees at Guantanamo - involving those detainees, anyway - arguing they have a right to challenge their detention in the US court system.

You're hearing about it on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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