The Supreme Court has taken another welcome step in thwarting President Bush’s authoritarian plans for handling suspects swept up in the war on terror. Earlier it had ruled that the president did not have the power he claimed to imprison suspects indefinitely without charge or access to lawyers and the courts.
This week the court ruled that his plans for trial by special military commissions were illegal under existing U.S. and international law, most specifically the Geneva Conventions. In doing so, it brushed past a shameful attempt by Congress to strip the court of authority over detainee appeals.
The 5-3 decision does not affect the status of the 450 Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees, only how the government can try them.
In 2001, the White House, with only limited input, issued an order for military commissions to try suspects picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The commissions were hopelessly stacked against the defendants, whose final appeals rested with the president and secretary of defense.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in the majority opinion, found that the president exceeded his authority in establishing these commissions and that the commissions themselves ran afoul of separation of powers.
The decision stops a military-commission proceeding against Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a onetime chauffeur and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, who is charged with a count of conspiracy to commit terrorism against Americans. For Hamdan, who had been at Guantanamo for over four years, it means a return to limbo while the administration decides what next.
The justices said that if Bush wants to establish special military tribunals to try the detainees, he would have to ask Congress. That must be particularly galling to the White House, which favors telling Congress, rather than asking.
Early on, the White House unilaterally decided that the Geneva Conventions, the international standard for the treatment of prisoners of war, did not apply to the detainees.
The justices said that if the president really wants to try the detainees, he already has the power to do so through the existing U.S. military judicial system.