Q&A: Consequences of the Detainee Rights Ruling A Supreme Court ruling Thursday gave Guantanamo detainees access to American courts. Here, a look ahead at what the consequences of the ruling may be for the roughly 270 men detained at Guantanamo — and those held at other prison camps overseas.
NPR logo Q&A: Consequences of the Detainee Rights Ruling

Q&A: Consequences of the Detainee Rights Ruling

The Supreme Court on Thursday decided one of the most important cases of the term: Boumediene v. Bush. The 5-4 ruling gave Guantanamo detainees access to American courts. It was the third time the justices have struck down the Bush administration's system for handling terrorism suspects held at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Here, a look ahead at what the consequences of the ruling may be for the various parties involved.

What impact will the ruling have on American courts?

The Supreme Court instructed lower courts to immediately begin processing Guantanamo detainees' claims, noting that many of the men have been in detention for more than six years. The Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., has nearly 200 Guantanamo claims on its docket. Many of those cases encompass more than one detainee. The chief judge of the court, Royce Lamberth, said he'll meet with lawyers for both sides to decide "how we can approach our task most effectively and efficiently."

What impact will the ruling have on the prison camp at Guantanamo?

Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal, who successfully argued a previous Guantanamo case before the Supreme Court, described the Supreme Court ruling as "the end of Guantanamo as we know it." The court effectively held that the Constitution applies to Guantanamo Bay as it does to the United States. That undermines the Bush administration's fundamental reason for using Guantanamo Bay to house terrorism detainees. The Bush administration assumed that it could apply different legal rules at Guantanamo than it would be required to apply if the detainees were housed in the United States. The Supreme Court has said that assumption was wrong.

What impact will the ruling have on Guantanamo detainees going through Combatant Status Review Tribunals?

There are roughly 270 men detained at Guantanamo. Each one goes through a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, or CSRT. That's the screening process the Bush administration uses to determine whether detainees are enemy combatants. The Supreme Court ruling said CSRTs are not a fair hearing and not an adequate substitute for habeas corpus — an ancient legal concept that refers to a prisoner's right to challenge his detention.

If the Bush administration continues holding CSRTs, detainees can now use the full range of defense tools available in American courts to challenge the tribunals' findings. For example, detainees will be able to rely on defense lawyers and challenge the government's evidence against them. Before, detainees had one narrow avenue of appeals to challenge a CSRT ruling. President Bush said his administration is studying the ruling to "determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate." The Supreme Court left it up to individual judges to determine on a case by case basis whether detainees have shown that they are being improperly held.

What impact will the ruling have on war crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay?

Nineteen so-called "high value" detainees have been charged with war crimes. They are scheduled to go through trials known as military commissions. The Supreme Court opinion did not directly address the legality of the commissions. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said, "The court's decision does not concern military commission trials, which will continue to proceed." But defense attorneys for the detainees charged with war crimes plan to use the Supreme Court's Boumediene ruling to argue that the military commissions are illegitimate.

What impact will the ruling have on detainees being held in other American-run prisons overseas?

The United States houses terrorism detainees at other prison camps around the world, such as Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The Bush administration asserts the right to detain those detainees indefinitely without giving them any court access. The Supreme Court did not address what legal framework applies to those detainees. On the legal Web site Balkinization, Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman suggests that "the question will in each case be determined by a 'functional approach' involving multiple factors and, especially, 'practical concerns,' rather than by any formalist rules."