Guantanamo Ruling Thwarts Detainee Rights

A federal appeals court upholds the Military Commissions Act, which includes a provision that denies Guantanamo detainees access to U.S. trial courts. Detainees have access to civilian courts only for appeals.

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Detainees in Guantanamo cannot go to court to challenge the conditions of their detention, so ruled a divided federal appeals court yesterday. That ruling upheld a controversial law called the Military Commissions Act, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The judges did not mince words on either side. Judge Raymond Randolph said in his majority opinion that everyone understands what Congress's intent was. Everyone that is, except the detainees, he wrote. Randolph said Congress clearly wanted the Military Commissions Act to wipe out even pending detainee lawsuits. He wrote that the language of the bill sounds, quote, "as if the proponents of these words were slamming their fists on the table shouting when we say all, we mean all without exception."

Judge Judith Rogers matched that vehemence in her dissent. She said while Congress may have intended to wipe out all the cases, such a law violates the Constitution. The Military Commissions Act is therefore void, she wrote, and does not deprive this court or the district courts of jurisdiction.

Mr. BILL GOODMAN (Legal Director, Center for Constitutional Rights): I really agree with the dissent, which says that even if this is what it intended, it violates the Constitution of the United States.

SHAPIRO: No surprise that Bill Goodman feels that way. He's legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the detainees.

Mr. GOODMAN: Some of the people have been there for over five years without any charges being brought. And the fact that they now have some system whereby they can bring some charges against people does not change or alter the fact that the vast majority of people held at Guantanamo will never be charged with anything, especially if this decision prevails.

SHAPIRO: In the administration, the reaction to this ruling was about as enthusiastic as you can get in a prepared statement. Here's Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.

Ms. TASIA SCOLINOS (Spokeswoman, Department of Justice): We are pleased with the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals upholding the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act and dismissing the consolidated Guantanamo detainee cases for lack of jurisdiction.

SHAPIRO: Those cases included appeals for more than 160 detainees.

Mr. DAVID RIVKIN (Former Justice Department Official): People have got to understand that this is a fundamental difference between detainees being held in Guantanamo, for example, and criminal defendants.

SHAPIRO: David Rivkin worked in the Justice Department under President Reagan and the first President Bush. He says the Constitution never intended a glut of enemy combatant lawsuits to clog the criminal justice system. And the Military Commissions Act, or MCA, took care of that problem.

Mr. RIVKIN: To an extent, the MCA has cut off what I consider to be highly frivolous judicial challenges - yes, it's true. But it's also a perfectly reasonable we are striking the balance.

SHAPIRO: The Military Commissions Act does not totally keep detainees out of the courts. Everyone at Guantanamo Bay gets a combatant status review tribunal to decide whether they're enemy combatants, and they can appeal that tribunal's finding to the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court.

Liberals and conservatives disagree about exactly what that means. In other words…

Professor BOBBY CHESNEY (Law, Wake Forest University): Just what is it that the D.C. Circuit gets to do when it reviews a combatant status review tribunal determination?

SHAPIRO: Bobby Chesney teaches at Wake Forest University Law School. He says the dissent in this opinion assumes that the D.C. Circuit Court can only ask a very narrow range of questions when it reviews the tribunal's findings.

Prof. CHESNEY: It may be that the Supreme Court would construe the D.C. Circuit as having the ability to consider more than that.

SHAPIRO: The Supreme Court has not said anything about the case yet, but many people believe that the high court will have the final word. In the meantime, a group of senators has introduced a bill that would give detainees the court access they've been fighting for. Before such any bill became law, President Bush would have to sign it. And given the White House's enthusiastic support for the Military Commissions Act, a veto seems much more likely.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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