Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Balanced rulings on detainees


Monday's U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding the rights of detainees in the war on terror are historic because they upheld one of the nation's bedrock principles - the right to a hearing in court - even for those designated as "enemy combatants."

Most media outlets quickly characterized the decisions, involving a U.S. citizen in Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld, and 16 foreign nationals held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in Rasul vs. Bush, as a defeat for President Bush's anti-terrorism policies. This was an oversimplification.

The justices also upheld the president's power to detain these combatants, including U.S. citizens, in effect indefinitely. And it suggested the government could set up a special military tribunal for these cases, in which normal rules of evidence might not apply and the burden of proof would fall on the detainees, not the government.

A third case, Rumsfeld vs. Padilla, was sent back to a lower court on a jurisdiction question.

All told, these were balanced, pragmatic decisions that - though the logic might have been awkward and the consensus fractured - ought to serve everyone's interests. To a degree, they were deferential to the executive branch, which happens during wartime, but they also vigorously asserted the federal courts' jurisdiction.

The detainees got the right to challenge their treatment before a "neutral decision-maker," presumably a court. But that's about all they got - the right to be heard in court, period.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's warning in Hamdi that "a state of war is not a blank check for the president" got the most attention, but she took pains not to make the ruling a legal straitjacket for the executive, either.

"The Constitution would not be offended by a presumption in favor of the Government's evidence," she wrote. "(T)he full protections that accompany challenges to detentions in other settings may prove unworkable and inappropriate in the enemy-combatant setting."

In the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, who justices cautiously termed a "presumed American citizen," the court invoked a constitutional right to due process.

Not so in Rasul, where the detainees' right to a day in court was based on a statute. And that's only because Guantanamo, by virtue of an open-ended lease with Cuba, is considered almost, sort of, U.S. soil. Technically, it does not apply anywhere else outside of the United States where American authorities might hold detainees. That question is for another case.

The Guantanamo decision may lead to a flood of litigation, but it seems unlikely to change the circumstances for many, if any, of the detainees.

Perhaps that's why a few media outlets as diverse as National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal were moved to call Monday's rulings a victory for Bush.

We wouldn't go that far. But in validating the president's wartime power, asserting the detainees' basic right to be heard and reaffirming the courts' role as guardians of liberty, it may be a victory for all of us.

What do you think?

Read the decisions online. Did the court make the right calls? Send your comments to Court Rulings, Enquirer Editorial Page, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, e-mail letters@enquirer.com or fax (513) 768-8610.

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