Before we get started: I have tried my hardest to node this very important case as objectively as possible, but I am a liberal and not exactly a friend of the Bush II Administration. Bearing this in mind, I welcome, in fact encourage, a conservative who disagreed with the final decision to node an opposing summary.

One final disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am synthesizing the writings of other lawyers, people who get paid the big bucks to explain this sort of stuff. If you're using this to do anything legal, you're insane.

Hamdi et al. v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense et al. was an important civil liberties case heard by the Supreme Court during the 2003 - 2004 term. The Court handed down its decision on Tuesday, June 29th, 2004, a decision that came out in favor of personal liberties versus the Bush administration policy of indefinite detainment of "enemy combatants." The final verdict was favored by a majority of six (Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who penned the opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Stephen Breyer, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice David Souter partially dissenting but concurring in the final judgement). Three justices dissented; interestingly enough, their dissenting opinions gave nearly opposite reasons. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote one opinion, joined by Justice John Paul Stevens, while Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the other.

The Case Background

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld was a suit for a writ of habeas corpus brought on the behalf of Yasser Esam Hamdi, an American citizen apprehended in Afghanistan and detained on charges of being an enemy combatant. Mr. Hamdi spent much of his life in Saudi Arabia, but maintained his American citizenship. He was captured in the fall of 2001 and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in January, 2002; when an official learned in April of that year that he was an American citizen, he was transferred to a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was held incommunicado save for access to a lawyer granted earlier in 2004 after immense political pressure was brought to bear by Hamdi's father, who also hired the lawyers to bring the case. Hamdi currently remains in Charleston.

The suit was brought on behalf of Hamdi by his father, who sought a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 on grounds that the government was holding his son in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Although the fundamental issue of the case was not the question of whether or not Hamdi had actually been an enemy combatant, his father produced evidence stating that his son had traveled to Afghanistan less than two months prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks to do "relief work," and had had no time for military training. The government responded with the Mobbs Declaration, written by a Defense Department official named Michael Mobbs. The Mobbs Declaration asserted that the government had evidence on certain details of Hamdi's trip, affiliation with a Taliban unit, and surrender of an assault rifle that provided sufficient grounds to classify Hamdi as an enemy combatant, one who takes up arms against the United States without the backing of or membership in a specific government or organized army.

The District Court hearing the case ruled that the Mobbs Declaration on its own did not carry the government's case, and ordered that the actual evidence used in preparing it be submitted for in camera review. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court reversed this decision, agreeing with the administration in their classification of Hamdi and ruling that the fact of Hamdi's capture in an undisputed combat zone was grounds enough to support his detention as an enemy combatant. The Fourth Circuit went on to say that no factual review or hearing was necessary, and Hamdi had no right to a hearing of his own or contest of the government's classification. Lastly, the court concluded that, if the facts provided in the Mobbs Declaration were accurate, the President had detained Hamdi on constitutional grounds and the habeas petition ought to be dismissed.

The appeals court ruled that Hamdi's detention was legal under a law passed directly after September 11. Express authorization of the detention of American citizens can come only from an act of Congress (18 U.S.C. § 4001(a), "no citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress”), so the court considered whether the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after September 11 allowed for this right of detention. The court concluded that the language of "necessary and appropriate force" used in this AUMF permitted the detention of citizens under 18 U.S.C. § 4001(a). It also concluded that Hamdi was entitled solely to a judicial inquiry into the legality of his detention, rather than a factual review of the evidence for his enemy combatant classification.

The Administration's Position

  • Hamdi was correctly classified as an enemy combatant.
  • Congress has granted the authority to detain enemy combatants indefinitely.
  • Even if Congress had not granted this authority, the administration would have the right by virtue of a time of war (here referring to the war in Afghanistan, status of the legitimacy of the War on Terror notwithstanding)
  • Persons held as enemy combatants have no right to challenge this classification in court.
  • Even if those designated enemy combatants had such a right, a written statement from the adminstration explaining the reasons for detention would be sufficient evidence to support the designation.

Hamdi's Position

  • Hamdi was not correctly classified an enemy combatant.
  • Congress has not authorized the indefinite detention of citizens.
  • Therefore the administration has no right to detain people indefinitely.
  • Those who are so detained have the right to challenge in court.
  • At the hearing of such a challenge, the court should at minimum hear evidence presented on both sides.

The Court's Decision

The first question considered by the Court was whether the administration had the authority to hold citizens as enemy combatants in the first place. A plurality, represented in an opinion written by Justice O'Connor, concluded that the language of "necessary and appropriate force" in the September 11 AUMF allowed for the detention of enemy combatants. Detention of citizens as enemy combatants, however, was only authorized in the cases of those captured in clear combat zones, believed to be actively engaged in assisting the enemy. The Court specifically did not address the question of citizens captured/detained outside of combat zones; this question was raised in the case of Jose Padilla, but the Court dismissed that case on procedural grounds. A minority, represented by the opinion of Justice Souter, rejected this conclusion but concurred in the final judgement.

The main question now facing the Court was whether Hamdi had the right to judicial review of his case. The administration argued no, on the grounds that a) Hamdi's apprehension in a combat zone was sufficient proof of his enemy combatant status, and b) the interference of the Court in this issue would violate separation of powers and unnecessarily hinder the military in the prosecution of their duty.

The Court strongly rejected the administration's first argument and disagreed with the second, holding that citizens have a right to challenge their detentions, and courts have a duty to hear these cases. The Court conceded a trial bias in favor of the administration - placing the burden of the proof on the detainee - but insisted that citizens had the right to a fair hearing. The Court did not address the issue of non-citizens held as enemy combatants, but a separate decision handed down in the same term, Rasul v. Bush, maintained that foreigners as well have this right.

There were two dissents offered, one written by Justice Scalia and joined by Justice Stevens, the other written by Justice Thomas. Justice Scalia's opinion stated quite firmly that not only did the Congressional AUMF not grant the right to detain citizens, Congress could not grant this right even if they wanted to. He and Stevens, therefore, held that Hamdi's detention was completely illegal and the writ should be granted at once. Justice Thomas, on the other hand, penned an opposition agreeing in full with the administration and asserting that enemy combatants have no right to judicial review.

Links to the Opinions

O'Connor's majority opinion: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-6696.ZO.html

Justice Souter's partial dissent: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-6696.ZX.html

Justice Scalia's dissent: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-6696.ZD.html

Justice Thomas's dissent: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-6696.ZD1.html

They can also be downloaded as PDF files.


References:

http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/6/28/19114/9819

http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-6696.ZS.html

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