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Supreme Court Restores Habeas Corpus

Supreme Court Restores Habeas Corpus

Glenn Greenwald
Salon
June 13, 2008

In a major rebuke to the Bush administration’s theories of presidential power — and in an equally stinging rebuke to the bipartisan political class which has supported the Bush detention policies — the U.S. Supreme Court today, in a 5-4 decision (.pdf), declared Section 7 of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 unconstitutional. The Court struck down that section of the MCA because it purported to abolish the writ of habeas corpus — the means by which a detainee challenges his detention in a court — despite the fact that the Constitution permits suspension of that writ only “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion.”

As a result, Guantanamo detainees accused of being “enemy combatants” have the right to challenge the validity of their detention in a full-fledged U.S. federal court proceeding. The ruling today is the first time in U.S. history that the Court has ruled that detainees held by the U.S. Government in a place where the U.S. does not exercise formal sovereignty (Cuba technically is sovereign over Guantanamo) are nonetheless entitled to the Constitutional guarantee of habeas corpus whenever they are held in a place where the U.S. exercises effective control.

In upholding the right of habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees, the Court found that the “Combatant Status Review Tribunals” process (“CSRT”) offered to Guantanamo detainees — mandated by the John-McCain-sponsored Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 — does not constitute a constitutionally adequate substitute for habeas corpus. To the contrary, the Court found that such procedures — which have long been criticized as sham hearings due to the fact that defendants cannot have a lawyer present, government evidence is presumptively valid, and defendants are prevented from challenging (and sometimes even knowing about) much of the evidence against them — “fall well short of the procedures and adversarial mechanisms that would eliminate the need for habeas corpus review.” Those grave deficiencies in the CSRT process mean that “there is considerable risk of error” in the tribunals’ conclusions.

The Court’s ruling was grounded in its recognition that the guarantee of habeas corpus was so central to the Founding that it was one of the few individual rights included in the Constitution even before the Bill of Rights was enacted. As the Court put it: “the Framers viewed freedom from unlawful restraint as a fundamental precept of liberty, and they understood the writ of habeas corpus as a vital instrument to secure that freedom.” The Court noted that freedom from arbitrary or baseless imprisonment was one of the core rights established by the 13th Century Magna Carta, and it is the writ of habeas corpus which is the means for enforcing that right. Once habeas corpus is abolished — as the Military Commissions Act sought to do — then we return to the pre-Magna Carta days where the Government is free to imprison people with no recourse.

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