Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Habeas Corpus Rights For Detainees

Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Habeas Corpus Rights For Detainees

The Rutherford Institute

WASHINGTON — In two separate rulings issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that detainees, whether they be foreign nationals or American citizens, have a right to pursue habeas challenges to their detention. The Rutherford Institute, in cooperation with a coalition of public interest and religious groups with widely-ranging ideological views, filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court in two companion cases brought by detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay to challenge their detention in American courts. The cases, Boumediene v. Bush and al Odah v. U.S., questioned whether the Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006 validly strips federal courts of jurisdiction over pending habeas corpus petitions filed by foreign citizen detainees held at Guantanamo. In a 5-4 decision in Boumediene v. Bush, the Court ruled that if Congress wishes to suspend habeas, it must do so only as the Constitution allows, when the country faces rebellion or invasion. In al Odah v. U.S., the Court decided unanimously that habeas corpus does extend to U.S. citizens held by U.S. military forces in Iraq. A copy of the Supreme Court’s rulings are available here: Boumediene and al Odah.

“This ruling serves as an important reminder of what justice in America should be about. Americans have long adhered to the notion that a person is innocent until proven guilty. However, we cannot pick and choose when or to whom that principle should be applied,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “When we deny habeas corpus to detainees, we risk more than just locking up individuals who might be innocent. We risk undermining the fundamental democratic principles that hold our government and its leaders in check.”

The Bush Administration has strongly opposed permitting habeas corpus suits by foreigners held as enemy combatants outside the United States. At the administration’s urging, Congress in 2006 passed the MCA, a key feature of which was to strip federal courts of the ability to hear habeas cases filed by Guantanamo detainees. Boumediene v. Bush centers on Lakhdar Boumediene, who was labeled an “alien unlawful enemy combatant” by President Bush and has been detained at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with several hundred other prisoners. Denied any habeas corpus rights, Boumediene has been imprisoned for the past five years without access to a court or meaningful communication with the outside world, including his family. In filing a brief in support of granting detainees access to civilian courts, the coalition of organizations that included The Rutherford Institute, along with the Constitution Project, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, argued that habeas corpus ensures separation of powers by providing an irreducible check by an independent judiciary against unlawful executive detention. As the coalition attorneys stated, the Constitution’s habeas provision “ensures that neither Congress nor the Executive can create ‘law-free’ zones within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States where the Judiciary cannot independently inquire into the legality of Executive detention . . . Such Kafkaesque regimes may lawfully exist in other countries where executive power is absolute. But the Framers of our Constitution expressly ensured that habeas corpus would be available to permit the Judiciary to check absolute Executive power.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Information about the Institute is available at