WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court will hear its first case arising from the government's anti-terrorism campaign following the Sept. 11 attacks, agreeing Monday to consider whether foreigners held at a U.S. Navy base in Cuba should have access to American courts.
The appeals came from British, Australian and Kuwaiti citizens held with more than 600 others suspected of being Taliban or al-Qaida foot soldiers. Most were picked up in U.S. anti-terrorism sweeps in Afghanistan following the attacks of two years ago.
The court combined the men's appeals and will hear the consolidated case sometime next year.
Lower courts had found that the American civilian court system did not have authority to hear the men's complaints about their treatment.
"The United States has created a prison on Guantanamo Bay that operates entirely outside the law," lawyers for British and Australian detainees argued in asking the high court to take the case.
"Within the walls of this prison, foreign nationals may be held indefinitely, without charges or evidence of wrongdoing, without access to family, friends or legal counsel, and with no opportunity to establish their innocence," they maintained.
Also Monday, the high court refused to hear another appeal dealing with the U.S. government anti-terrorism campaign. The court did not comment in rejecting an appeal from an Islamic charity whose assets were impounded three months after the terrorist attacks.
The Global Relief Foundation argued that the government put it out of business without proof that the Illinois-based charity was funneling money to terrorists. Since the attacks, the United States and other governments have frozen the assets of several groups they claim assist groups like al-Qaida.
Global Relief has not been charged with a terror-related crime. It has said that it provides humanitarian relief in about 20 different nations, mainly those with large Muslim populations. The case is Global Relief Foundation v. Snow, 03-46.
In the Guantanamo case, the appeals come from men who do not even know about the lawsuit, lawyers from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights told the court. The lawsuit brought on their behalf claims they are not al-Qaida members and had no involvement in Sept. 11.
The Bush administration replied that a lower federal appeals court properly looked to a Supreme Court case arising from World War II to determine that foreigners held outside the United States cannot bring the kind of court challenge at issue now. The 1950 case said German prisoners detained by the United States in China had no right to access to federal courts.
The administration issued no immediate comment after the court said it would hear the appeals. The justices limited their review to the narrow but significant question of access to U.S. courts. The men had raised broad civil liberties objections to their detention and treatment, but the high court declined to look at those issues. The men could presumably renew those challenges if they win this case at the Supreme Court.
"In essence, the Court must now decide whether the United States will reaffirm or reject its commitment to the rule of law," the Center for Constitutional Rights said after the court agreed to hear the group's appeal.
On the other side, The American Center for Law and Justice said it plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the government.
"The fact is that the United States is permitted to take action to protect the safety and security of all Americans," said Jay Sekulow, the group's chief counsel. "The U.S. courts do not have any jurisdiction in this matter and should not be permitted to be used to secure the release of these detainees."
The Guantanamo base is a 45-square-mile area on the southeastern tip of Cuba. The land was seized by the United States in the Spanish-American War and has been leased from Cuba for the past century. The lease far predates the communist rule of Fidel Castro.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had rejected the detainees' claim that Guantanamo Bay is under the de facto control of the United States, even though it remains a part of Cuba.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson, whose wife was killed aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, told the court that the prisoners' lawsuit has great "potential for interference with the core war powers of the president."
President Bush has recommended that six of the Guantanamo detainees, including Australian David Hicks, be the first to face military tribunals established for the global war on terror.
Hicks also is among the inmates named in the appeals. He was captured while allegedly fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The cases are Rasul v. Bush, 03-334 and Al Odah v. United States, 03-343.