Court Upholds Military Proceedings for Detainees

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The federal appeals court has upheld the controversial detainee bill known as the Military Commissions Act. In a 2-1 ruling, the court said the measure constitutionally wiped out all of the pending court cases from detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The act allows the government to try detainees in military proceedings, giving detainees access to federal civilian courts only for appeals.

Writing for the majority, Judge Raymond Randolph calls the detainees' arguments, "creative but not cogent." He says the logic in the dissent is "filled with holes."

In that dissent, Judge Judith Rogers shoots back that the majority can only reach its conclusion, "by misreading the historical record and ignoring the Supreme Court." She says the Military Commissions Act is unconstitutional as written and cannot take away the courts' right to hear these cases.

The ruling is a clear blow to the Guantanamo detainees. Bill Goodman is legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents a number of them.

Many of these people have done nothing," Goodman says. "They're there by accident and happenstance." He added that not being able to "raise the basic defense that 'I've done nothing wrong' means that this is a huge trampling of rights."

This decision wipes out cases that challenged everything from lack of medical treatment at the facility to abusive interrogation tactics. David Rivkin worked in the Justice Department under President Reagan and the first President Bush. He says enemy combatants were never intended to get the same court access as criminal suspects.

There's been more judicial involvement in these types of decisions than in any war in American history," Rivkin says. "And for the critics it's still not enough."

Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos noted in a statement that the Military Commissions Act, or MCA, does give detainees some legal review.

"The decision reaffirms the validity of the framework that Congress established in the MCA," Scolinos said, "permitting Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention through combatant status review tribunals with the opportunity for judicial review before the D.C. Circuit."

So although the detainees cannot file traditional habeas corpus claims challenging their detention, they can challenge the Combatant Status Review Tribunals that determine whether they are enemy combatants. Those challenges go directly to the court that decided this case today.

Wake Forest law professor Bobby Chesney says it's unclear how deeply those challenges can probe.

"One of the key issues here is whether that is an adequate alternative to habeas corpus," Chesney says, "and if it is, if it's a sufficient alternative, then habeas has not actually been suspended."

The final word on whether the detainees' lawsuits can continue is likely to come from the Supreme Court.

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