“What is presently at stake is only whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the Executive’s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing.” And the answer to that question is “affirmative.”
So Guantanamo is not like the Antarctic, a place with no law (cf. Smith v. US). I strongly think this is the right result, but I'm not entirely happy with how the majority got there.
I would have relied on the treaty, the US's perpetual control over the territory, and the ousting of any relevant foreign power other than the mythical quality called “sovereignty” which the Cuban government retains—little more than a first right of reversion if the US leaves. The Court mentions this, but an awfully big chunk of its decision relies on domestic habeas jurisdiction, predicated on the district court's assertion of power over the detainees' custodian, the Secretary of Defense. (The dissent has a field day with this duality.)
To get to where it wants to go, the majority plays a little fast and loose with precedent, arguing the leading case of Eisentrager was overruled in 1973, a dubious claim. I won't go into the details—inside baseball for lawyers—except to say that I think Justice Kennedy's concurrence is much more elegant, and avoids the troubles pointed out by the dissent. Kennedy's view would not reform the law as much, but it would do what needed doing. Kennedy would grasp the bull of the leading precedent, Eisentrager by the horns, and limit it much more closely to its facts than the government wanted:
The facts here are distinguishable from those in Eisentrager in two critical ways, leading to the conclusion that a federal court may entertain the petitions. First, Guantanamo Bay is in every practical respect a United States territory, and it is one far removed from any hostilities. The opinion of the Court well explains the history of its possession by the United States. In a formal sense, the United States leases the Bay; the 1903 lease agreement states that Cuba retains “ultimate sovereignty” over it. Lease of Lands for Coaling and Naval Stations, Feb. 23, 1903, U. S.-Cuba, Art. III, T. S. No. 418. At the same time, this lease is no ordinary lease. Its term is indefinite and at the discretion of the United States. What matters is the unchallenged and indefinite control that the United States has long exercised over Guantanamo Bay. From a practical perspective, the indefinite lease of Guantanamo Bay has produced a place that belongs to the United States, extending the “implied protection” of the United States to it. Eisentrager, supra, at 777–778.
The second critical set of facts is that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are being held indefinitely, benefit of any legal proceeding to determine their status. In Eisentrager, the prisoners were tried and convicted by a military commission of violating the laws of war and were sentenced to prison terms. Having already been subject to procedures establishing their status, they could not justify “a limited opening of our courts” to show that they were “of friendly personal disposition” and not enemy aliens. 339 U. S., at 778. Indefinite detention without trial or other proceeding presents altogether different considerations.
Justice Scalia responds to these arguments in footnote four of his dissent but I do not find this part of his argument very persuasive:
JUSTICE KENNEDY recognizes that Eisentrager controls, ante, at 1 (opinion concurring in judgment), but misconstrues that opinion. He thinks it makes jurisdiction under the habeas statute turn on the circumstances of the detainees’ confinement—including, apparently, the availability of legal proceedings and the length of detention, see ante, at 3–4. The Eisentrager Court mentioned those circumstances, however, only in the course of its constitutional analysis, and not in its application of the statute. It is quite impossible to read §2241 as conditioning its geographic scope upon them. Among the consequences of making jurisdiction turn upon circumstances of confinement are (1) that courts would always have authority to inquire into circumstances of confinement, and (2) that the Executive would be unable to know with certainty that any given prisoner-of-war camp is immune from writs of habeas corpus. And among the questions this approach raises: When does definite detention become indefinite? How much process will suffice to stave off jurisdiction? If there is a terrorist attack at Guantanamo Bay, will the area suddenly fall outside the habeas statute because it is no longer “far removed from any hostilities,” ante, at 3? JUSTICE KENNEDY’s approach provides enticing law-school-exam imponderables in an area where certainty is called for.
Scalia claims Kennedy mis-reads Eisentrager, confusing the constitutional and statutory parts of the case. I don't think that's right—the existence of the constitutional right implies that the statues must be read in conformity with it if possible, for reasons Scalia explains earlier in his own opinion. While the parade of horribles Scalia presents do indeed deserve a home on an exam, the advanced course would ask students to discuss the way in which a purportedly formalist judge uses pragmatic arguments when it suits him…and whether the distinction really means that much any more in this age of judicial opportunism.
The dissent (Scalia, with Rehnquist and Thomas) has two points: First, Eisentrager (as they read it) controls, and that's just fine, so there's no hearing despite the many differences noted by Kennedy. Second, if Congress wants to change this, it could. That's actually an under-appreciated truth: this whole litigation would have been unnecessary if Congress had the guts to legislate decency. But then, this whole series of cases would have been unnecessary if Congress had had the guts not to vote Bush the authority to start a war whenever he liked.
Scalia also kindly gives us the short version of what this case stands for:
Today’s opinion, and today’s opinion alone, overrules Eisentrager; today’s opinion, and today’s opinion alone, extends the habeas statute, for the first time, to aliens held beyond the sovereign territory of the United States and beyond the territorial jurisdiction of its courts. No reasons are given for this result; no acknowledgment of its consequences made. By spurious reliance on Braden the Court evades explaining why stare decisis can be disregarded, and why Eisentrager was wrong. Normally, we consider the interests of those who have relied on our decisions. Today, the Court springs a trap on the Executive, subjecting Guantanamo Bay to the over-sight of the federal courts even though it has never before been thought to be within their jurisdiction—and thus making it a foolish place to have housed alien wartime detainees.
One odd part of the debate between the two sides has to do with what if anything we learn from pre-revolutionary English practice. The majority notes that prerogative writs, such as habeas corpus, ran to the “excluded jurisdictions”—even where ordinary statutes did not. The dissent replies that those precedents shouldn't apply to foreign territory, but it goes off the rails when it says, “All of the dominions in the cases the Court cites—and all of the territories Blackstone lists as dominions, see 1 Blackstone *93–*106—are the sovereign territory of the Crown: colonies, acquisitions and conquests, and so on. It is an enormous extension of the term to apply it to installations merely leased for a particular use from another nation that still retains ultimate sovereignty.”
Personally, I cannot see how given the realities of the situation this is anything but at most a minute extension. And to see even the minute part you have to think that “sovereignty” empty of content still matters, a theory only a formalist could love.
Although neither side mentions this, I think that to the extent that the dissent might be correct in saying that the older (or even newer, as in early or mid-20th century) English cases suggest in dicta or otherwise that once “abroad” habeas might be available to citizens but might not be available to detained indigenes, I think the majority was on firm ground in ignoring that aspect of those cases. It is indisputable that the older cases were driven by deep racist assumptions about local peoples that permeated both the British colonial and the British domestic judiciary. This country is right to take the spirit of those decisions and lose the dross.
The dissent gets another thing right, more of less, noting the peculiarity of a ruling that,
confers upon wartime prisoners greater habeas rights than domestic detainees. The latter must challenge their present physical confinement in the district of their confinement, see Rumsfeld v. Padilla, ante, whereas under today’s strange holding Guantanamo Bay detainees can petition in any of the 94 federal judicial districts. The fact that extraterritorially located detainees lack the district of detention that the statute requires has been converted from a factor that precludes their ability to bring a petition at all into a factor that frees them to petition wherever they wish—and, as a result, to forum shop.
That is an odd result. But it is less odd and disturbing than one that left detainees no recourse in our courts even if they were being tortured. Not that torture could ever happen, of course.
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