In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against the government in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, finding that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay have the right to file habeas corpus petitions in federal court. This decision strikes down a key section of the Military Commissions Act, the horrible piece of legislation passed by Congress in October 2006 that sought to condemn detainees to indefinite imprisonment with no real right to challenge their detention.
The MCA provided only for “Combatant Status Review Tribunals”, a farce trial that makes a mockery of the protections given by the Constitution to an accused person. Detainees are tried before military officers, rather than neutral judges. In these tribunals, they have no right to a lawyer, they can be barred from seeing the evidence against them, and they cannot call witnesses in their defense. In a number of cases, when the first CSRT concluded an inmate was not an enemy combatant, the government simply ignored the ruling and convened a second one to reach the decision it preferred.
These inquisitorial, rigged “trials” give further evidence of why the writ of habeas corpus is so vitally important. For over 700 years, it’s protected people against arbitrary and capricious imprisonment by their government. By forcing the government to publicly show the reasons why it has detained someone before a neutral magistrate, habeas corpus turns imprisonment into a tool of justice, rather than a tool of tyranny.
The U.S. Constitution provides that Congress may suspend habeas corpus, but only in cases of “rebellion or invasion”, when it is vital to protect public safety. Clearly, neither of these conditions is in effect at the moment. Thus, the MCA’s suspension of habeas corpus for detainees was unconstitutional, and the Court was absolutely in the right to strike it down.
The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been in detention, in some cases, for over six years without ever being given the chance to prove their innocence. The Bush administration’s attempt to put them into a legal black hole, beyond the reach of all law, is anathema to everything the American justice system stands for. It’s long overdue that this injustice was corrected. If any of these detainees are terrorists or have committed war crimes against the United States, then let the government prove that in a court of law. Our justice system has served us well against those who would harm us for over two hundred years, and it will continue to do so. On the other hand, if any of these detainees are innocent – a very likely circumstance, given the dragnet-like way in which they were swept up – then their detention is an outrageous evil, and they should immediately be released.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, concluded that neither the President nor Congress may “switch the Constitution on or off at will“. The Court rejected the legal fiction that, because Guantanamo Bay is technically part of Cuba, the detainees have no recourse under the U.S. Constitution.
This is a great victory for due process and for the American legal system, and a bright day for friends of liberty everywhere. The only dark spot on this decision is that it was by a narrow, 5-to-4 majority. (Scalia’s dissent begins “America is at war with radical Islamists” and goes on to cry about how the terrorists will kill us if we don’t lock people up indefinitely with no trial. I am not joking.) If John McCain is elected president and has the chance to make the next few appointments to the Supreme Court, the fragile constitutional bulwarks which still stand against arbitrary government power will be in extremely serious jeopardy.