Court Cases

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)
On June 30, 2006, the US Supreme Court by 5-3 ruled that President Bush had overstepped his authority when he set up military commissions to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba through a November 13, 2001 Executive Order.  In a stunning decision, the court declared that the commissions were illegal and violated the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners in wartime, and that the president had to comply with the "Rule of Law."  (The Bush Administration had long declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the Guantanamo detainees, and the president had "inherent power" as commander-in-chief to prosecute the "war on terror" as he saw fit).

With this ruling, the Supreme Court exercised a check on that presidential authority.  It gave President Bush a choice of either adopting regular military courts-martial to try the detainees, or asking Congress to pass legislation setting up a kind of tribunal that would give detainees a fair trial – which the military commissions would not. 

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Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004)
Yaser Hamdi was an American citizen who was captured by a militia in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and turned over to the US military.  He was then sent to a military prison on a naval ship in South Carolina, where he was held incommunicado an "unlawful enemy combatant" without access to a lawyer or the courts.   A Virginia attorney challenged his indefinite petition by filing a habeas corpus petition on his behalf, and a US District Court agreed that there was no good evidence to hold him without access to the courts.  But a panel of the US Court for the Fourth Circuit found that the executive branch could hold him indefinitely because he had been captured in a "zone of active combat" and that he did not have the right to a court hearing. 

The US Supreme Court disagreed.  With Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing the opinion, the court said that an "enemy combatant" who was a US citizen did have the Fifth Amendment right to appear before a judge or "neutral decision-maker."  Rather than bring Hamdi to court, the Bush Administration stripped him of his US citizenship and deported him to Saudi Arabia where he had spent time as a child.

Rasul v. Bush (2004)
Beginning early in 2002, the US military transferred people it considered "unlawful enemy combatants" to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay which the US leased in perpetuity from Cuba beginning early in the 20th century.  By holding them secretly in Cuba, the government argued that they could not have access to US courts to challenge their indefinite detention.  This argument was rejected by the US Supreme Court which ruled 6-3 that since the US had "complete jurisdiction and control" over the Guantanamo base, the detainees were not in a legal black hole, and did have the right to bring habeas corpus claims in US courts.