The Gitmo detainees get their day in court. Sort of.

Oral argument from the court.
April 20 2004 7:03 PM

The Prisoners' Dilemma

The Gitmo detainees get their day in court. Sort of.

Guantanamo Twilight Zone
Guantanamo Twilight Zone

It may help make sense of the issues in today's cases involving the detainees in Guantanamo Bay to consider them this way: The two consolidated cases— Rasul v. Bush and Al Odah v. United States —have never been adjudicated on the merits. That's lawyer-speak meaning that no court has ever determined whether these 600-plus foreign nationals are terrorists, or enemy soldiers, or jars of olives. The Supreme Court isn't being asked to make that determination today either. It's merely being asked whether some U.S. court can do so. That's all habeas corpus really means—do you have the right to put your foot inside the courthouse door? It's also useful to recall that these issues were not decided at trials. The district court and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed these cases without getting to the merits, believing they lacked jurisdiction to hear them. In order to dismiss these cases, those lower courts needed to assume that the facts as alleged by the prisoners are all true: They are innocent; none fought against the United States; and that for legal purposes, these detainees are a bunch of nuns and Eagle Scouts. The result, held the courts, is still the same: No day in court for non-citizen enemy combatants held outside the United States.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

Let's also suck it up and get to Eisentrager. That's Johnson v. Eisentrager—the Supreme Court case from 1950 that will dictate the outcome of today's hearing. Why are we acting like the Yale English department in the 1980s and tripping all over ourselves to deconstruct the inner meanings of an ambiguous decision about German spies in World War II? Well, because that's the beauty of our legal system. You cast about for the best precedent you can find and then hew to its dictates, lame and antiquated though they may be.

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The cases today were brought by family members of 16 detainees, who are citizens of Australia, Britain, and Kuwait, which countries are not presently at war with the United States. (Although some British Parliamentarians are pretty irked.)

Another oddity of today's argument, which—thanks to the intermittent democratic impulses of the high court—you can listen to here and here, is that it just isn't very good. On both sides there's some extreme positioning, some backpedaling and fudging. Argument opens with John Gibbons, a former 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals judge who lends gravitas to the day by looking like Justice John Paul Stevens. Gibbons calls Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo a "lawless enclave, insulated by the executive from any scrutiny now or in the future."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist stops him, pointing out that the appellants in this case have been detained for two years, but "suppose it was only six months. Does that weaken your case?" When Gibbons says no, Justice Anthony Kennedy asks if the result would have been different if they'd only been detained for weeks. His worry, expressed several times today, is that every enemy soldier captured on the battlefield will instantly be demanding an attorney.

Kennedy wants to know exactly which substantive rights, beyond the right to walk into a courtroom, should be conferred on detainees. "What is a judge supposed to do?" he asks. Gibbons tries to invoke rights conferred by the Geneva Convention, which just muddies the waters because this case doesn't much concern the Geneva Convention, as Rehnquist is quick to point out.

There is a lengthy discussion about whether Eisentrager was a decision confined to jurisdiction or a ruling on the merits of the World War II prisoners' claims. The truth is that the Eisentrager court sort of did both, and that fact wreaks some major mayhem today. Justice Stevens tries to throw Gibbons a lifejacket, then a buoy, and then his own shirt by pointing out that Eisentrager was decided in part based on a case that was substantially overruled since. Gibbons fights him until Stevens gives up.

Kennedy wonders again whether captured lawful combatants in a declared war also have a right to habeas corpus, and Gibbons says no, although his argument—that judges could just dismiss these claims—begs the key question: on what grounds?

Justice Stephen Breyer wonders whether the Geneva Convention couldn't be used to flesh out the basic due-process rights of detainees. Gibbons agrees. "You're not simply being polite?" asks Breyer.

Soon we get to the arguments about the difference between being on a battlefield and in Guantanamo, which the United States leases, but does not own. Here, the Bush administration argument is that a rental island is like a rental car: You can ding the bumpers and leave crap in the ashtrays since it's not yours. Rehnquist points out that the terms of the lease give "ultimate sovereignty" over Guantanamo to Cuba. Gibbons suggests that this is conditional. Justice Antonin Scalia gets him to admit he is mistaken.