'Hamdan v. Rumsfeld': Legal Issues & Ramifications

Salim Ahmed Hamdan

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, seen here in an undated photo handed out by his defense lawyers. Getty Images hide caption

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Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military war crimes trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Read the Court's Ruling

In a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. The court ruled that the tribunals violate U.S. laws and the international Geneva Conventions. Read the court's ruling:

Vote: Split 5-3, with moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court's more liberal members in ruling against the Bush administration. Chief Justice John Roberts recused himself from the case because, as an appeals court judge, he had backed the government over Hamdan. The Supreme Court's ruling overturned that decision. Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito dissented.

Case Background: The case involves Osama bin Laden's one-time driver, a Yemeni citizen named Salim Ahmed Hamdan. The U.S. government says Hamdan was a confidant and bodyguard of bin Laden and helped transfer weapons from the Taliban to al-Qaida. Hamdan claims he was just a chauffeur. He says he was trying to return home in 2001 when he was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and turned over to the U.S. military for bounty. Hamdan has spent four years in the U.S. prison in Cuba. He faces a single count of conspiring against U.S. citizens from 1996 to November 2001.

Legal Issues Involved: The Hamdan case tested the legality of the commissions set up to try Guantanamo detainees. The president claimed that his inherent executive powers allow him to try detainees such as Hamdan held at Guantanamo outside traditional military or civilian courts.

The White House argued that presidential authority was reinforced by Congress' Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The administration said the detainees are not prisoners of war but "unlawful combatants," and as such, are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

In its 5-3 ruling, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court forcefully rejected that argument. In a separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote:

"Congress has not issued the executive a 'blank check,"' adding: "Indeed, Congress has denied the president the legislative authority to create military commissions of the kind at issue here. Nothing prevents the president from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary."

Justice Stevens suggested that, if the U.S. government wishes to proceed with prosecutions of Guantanamo detainees, it would be best off using regular military courts-martial trials.

Scott Silliman, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, estimates that such prosecutions would likely affect only 15 to 20 Guantanamo detainees at most. But in a conference call Thursday, some military and Justice Department officials said that as many as 80 could face some sort of legal action. Approximately 450 men are held at the U.S. prison camp.

Jurisdiction: In December 2005, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act, which stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction over at least some pending cases involving Guantanamo detainees. That made the Supreme Court's jurisdiction a key question in the Hamdan case.

But in its ruling, the Supreme Court asserted its right to review such cases.

"The Court's duty," Stevens wrote, "in both peace and war, [is] to preserve the constitutional safe-guards of civil liberty. " He added: "The Government has identified no countervailing interest that would permit federal courts to depart from their general duty to exercise the jurisdiction Congress has conferred on them."

The ruling also affects the dozens of habeus corpus petitions from Guantanamo prisoners challenging their detention that are currently before the District of Columbia Circuit Court. Thursday's opinion means that the Circuit Court does indeed have jurisdiction to hear those petitions.

Prior Cases: Two years ago, the high court rejected President Bush's claim that he had authority to seize and detain terrorism suspects and indefinitely deny them access to courts or lawyers. This follow-up case focuses solely on trials planned for some of those detainees.

Compiled from NPR staff and wire reports. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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