As I write this post, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing oral argument in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, an important case involving the president’s constitutional and statutory authority in times of war, and the legality of military commissions set up to try detainees captured in the war on terror. The facts of the case:
Petitioner Salid Ahmed Hamdan is a detainee being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and admits to being a personal bodyguard and driver to Osama bin Laden. He was charged with conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, and was to be tried before a military commission, which is a special adjudicatory body created by Presidential order to try individuals accused of war crimes. [Link]
The procedural history, or how the present case made its way to the Supreme Court:
Before trial, Hamdan challenged the lawfulness of the military commission that was to try him, and in November 2004, the D.C. District Court enjoined the military commission proceedings as illegal under the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that military commissions had been duly authorized by Congress; that relief was unavailable under the Geneva Convention because it did not create privately enforceable rights and because it did not apply to Al Qaeda; and that the UCMJ did not preclude HamdanÂ’s trial before military commissions. [Link]
Hamdan appealed to the Supreme Court and in November 2005, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. Chief Justice John Roberts recused himself, as he served on the D.C. Circuit Court panel that upheld the war crimes tribunals. (Some are calling for Justice Antonin Scalia to step aside as well because of comments he recently made in Switzerland, see here.)
Respected desi law professor Neal Katyal is arguing the case on behalf of Hamdan. There are two questions (.pdf) before the Supreme Court. The first is a threshold inquiry regarding the Court’s jurisdiction to hear the case. The government contends that the Court should dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds:
[The government] argue[s] that the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), enacted by Congress after the Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case, preclude pre-trial review by establishing an exclusive post-trial review process for all Guantanamo detainees. In addition, the Government has argued, even absent the DTA, the Court should withhold ruling on the merits until a final decision has been reached in accordance with traditional abstention doctrine. Petitioner, on the other hand, argues that Congress specifically modified the effective date provisions of the DTA to ensure that the Supreme Court could decide this case.[Link]
Second, as to the merits:
petitioner argues [in part] that the military commission that seeks to try him is not authorized to do so under U.S. law. [H]e argues that such authorization must be explicitly provided by Congress. Respondents dispute whether such explicit authorization is required, pointing to the historical practice of the President convening military commissions as evidence of his inherent “Commander-in-Chief” power to do so. [Link]
The Supreme Court issued a statement noting that it will expedite the release of the audio transcript of today’s hearings. If any SM readers have any thoughts on the case, before or after listening to argument, please post them in the comments section. (Some legal commentators are already speculating that the case may come out tied, 4-4 (with Chief Justice Roberts not participating, as noted above). As expected, others disagree, arguing that the government will prevail.) I hope to share my reaction to the argument with you as soon as I listen to the audio of the proceedings.
For court documents and further information on the background of and arguments in this case, please visit this site, which is apparently operated by counsel for Hamdan.