Detainees can challenge treatment in U.S. courts

Supreme Court rules against Bush and says suspects must have access to lawyers.
Tuesday, June 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:41 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt a setback to the Bush administration’s war against terrorism Monday, ruling that both U.S. citizens and foreigners seized as potential terrorists can challenge their treatment in U.S. courts.

The court refused to endorse a central claim of the White House since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: that the government has authority to seize and detain terror suspects or their protectors and indefinitely deny access to courts or lawyers while interrogating them.

The court did back the administration in one important respect, ruling that Congress gave President Bush the authority to seize and hold a U.S. citizen, in this case Louisiana-born Yaser Esam Hamdi, as an alleged enemy combatant.

That bright spot for the administration was almost eclipsed, however, by the court’s ruling that Hamdi can use American courts to argue that he is being held illegally. Foreign-born men held at a Navy prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can also have their day in U.S. courts, the justices said.

Ruling in the Hamdi case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the court has “made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”

Hamdi and most of the Guantanamo detainees were picked up in antiterrorism sweeps in Afghanistan in the weeks following the attacks more than two-and-a-half years ago. They have been held since then.

The vote in the Guantanamo case was 6-3, with the court’s three most conservative members dissenting.

The justices splintered in the Hamdi case, with a different lineup of six justices voting to throw out a lower court ruling in the government’s favor and allow Hamdi another chance to air his claims. Three justices disagreed with that outcome, for varying reasons.

Perhaps more significantly, eight of the nine justices sided against the Bush administration on some grounds. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, found no fault with the administration.

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