Tuesday, April 03, 2007

SC shoots down Gitmo appeal

Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from two groups of Gitmo detainees, who were asking the Court for a habeus corpus review of their detention.

Back when the Military Commissions Act was passed, the provision stripping habeus corpus rights from detainees was expected to pose a serious constitutional problem; many observers and quite a few Congressmembers expected the Supreme Court to declare that part of the law unconstitutional. This was supposed to be the case where they did so.

But the justices chose to reject the petitions on narrow procedural grounds, saying the plaintiffs had not yet exhausted all other options.

"Despite the obvious importance of the issues raised in these cases, we are persuaded that traditional rules governing our decision of constitutional questions ... and our practice of requiring the exhaustion of available remedies as a precondition to accepting jurisdiction over applications for the writ of habeas corpus ... make it appropriate to deny these petitions at this time."...

The court also said its decision to stay out of the fight for now does not mean it is rejecting the claims on their merits, just that the timing was not right for the court's involvement now.

Bleh. I understand exhausting options. But by dodging the question, the Court simply delays a resolution. Eventually the prisoners will exhaust other options, and then the case will be back before the Court. If they then shoot down that portion of the act, how would they justify the continued detention of these prisoners in the meantime? Not to mention the limbo the prisoners will be in as Congress and the administration seek to craft some sort of replacement language. If language brought before the Court is clearly unconstitutional, the Court should strike it down -- not leave it operating and causing harm until every other possible remedy is tried. The Roberts Court's impulse to decide cases as narrowly as possible is excellent in principle, but in practice it often seems to delay justice and sow confusion.

That's essentially what Justices Breyer, Souter and Ginsburg argued in their dissent.

I also find this line irritating:

The majority of justices noted the court would be willing to get involved later if the prisoners could show "the government has unreasonably delayed proceedings."

Hello? Many of them have been imprisoned for years already. I understand that the justices are referring to proceedings under the newly passed act, but some sense of urgency would seem to be appropriate here.

With the prisoners in limbo -- at least for now -- is Congress doing anything to fix the Military Commissions Act's more offensive provisions?

Yes.

S576 and HR1415 are the "Restoring the Constitution Act". It tightens the definition of "enemy combatant", requires defendants have access to counsel, excludes coerced statements from evidence, improves the discovery process, gives federal appeals courts (rather than military courts) the authority to hear appeals of tribunal cases, and several other things.

S185 and HR1416 are the "Habeus Corpus Restoration Act." It's very short; it simply restores habeus corpus rights to detainees.

Both are currently in committee in both chambers. We can hope to see them hit the floor for a vote later in this session.

To repeat something I wrote a couple of months ago: Terrorists deserve to be treated harshly. But suspected terrorists deserve rights, including a fair trial; that's the only way we can demonstrate that they are terrorists and thus deserving of punishment. We debase our own principles -- and damage not only our society but our cause -- when we abuse those rights in the name of expediency.

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