KC Johnson

Terrorism and the Constitutional Order

  • Rosemary Foot, “Exceptionalism Again: The Bush Administration, the ‘Global War on Terror’ and Human Rights,” 26 Law and History Review (2008).
  • John Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel memo, justifying use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) against Guantanamo detainees. (This memo was subsequently repudiated by the OLC.)
  • Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006). Question: Did the military tribunals created by the Bush administration provide sufficient constitutional protections to defendants?

Justice Stevens announced the judgment of the Court.

Petitioner Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national, is in custody at an American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In November 2001, during hostilities between the United States and the Taliban (which then governed Afghanistan), Hamdan was captured by militia forces and turned over to the U. S. military. In June 2002, he was transported to Guantanamo Bay. Over a year later, the President deemed him eligible for trial by military commission for then-unspecified crimes. After another year had passed, Hamdan was charged with one count of conspiracy “to commit … offenses triable by military commission.”

Hamdan filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus and mandamus to challenge the Executive Branch’s intended means of prosecuting this charge. He concedes that a court-martial constituted in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), would have authority to try him. His objection is that the military commission the President has convened lacks such authority, for two principal reasons: First, neither congressional Act nor the common law of war supports trial by this commission for the crime of conspiracy—an offense that, Hamdan says, is not a violation of the law of war. Second, Hamdan contends, the procedures that the President has adopted to try him violate the most basic tenets of military and international law, including the principle that a defendant must be permitted to see and hear the evidence against him.

. . .     We have no occasion to revisit Quirin’s controversial characterization of Article of War 15 as congressional authorization for military commissions. Contrary to the Government’s assertion, however, even Quirin did not view the authorization as a sweeping mandate for the President to “invoke military commissions when he deems them necessary.” Rather, the Quirin Court recognized that Congress had simply preserved what power, under the Constitution and the common law of war, the President had had before 1916 to convene military commissions—with the express condition that the President and those under his command comply with the law of war. That much is evidenced by the Court’s inquiry, following its conclusion that Congress had authorized military commissions, into whether the law of war had indeed been complied with in that case.

. . .   At a minimum, the Government must make a substantial showing that the crime for which it seeks to try a defendant by military commission is acknowledged to be an offense against the law of war. That burden is far from satisfied here. The crime of “conspiracy” has rarely if ever been tried as such in this country by any law-of-war military commission not exercising some other form of jurisdiction, and does not appear in either the Geneva Conventions or the Hague Conventions—the major treaties on the law of war.

, , ,   The charge’s shortcomings are not merely formal, but are indicative of a broader inability on the Executive’s part here to satisfy the most basic precondition—at least in the absence of specific congressional authorization—for establishment of military commissions: military necessity. Hamdan’s tribunal was appointed not by a military commander in the field of battle, but by a retired major general stationed away from any active hostilities. Hamdan is charged not with an overt act for which he was caught redhanded in a theater of war and which military efficiency demands be tried expeditiously, but with an agreement the inception of which long predated the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the AUMF. That may well be a crime, but it is not an offense that “by the law of war may be tried by military commissio[n].”  None of the overt acts alleged to have been committed in furtherance of the agreement is itself a war crime, or even necessarily occurred during time of, or in a theater of, war. Any urgent need for imposition or execution of judgment is utterly belied by the record; Hamdan was arrested in November 2001 and he was not charged until mid-2004. These simply are not the circumstances in which, by any stretch of the historical evidence or this Court’s precedents, a military commission established by Executive Order under the authority of Article 21 of the UCMJ may lawfully try a person and subject him to punishment.

. ..  Common Article 3 obviously tolerates a great degree of flexibility in trying individuals captured during armed conflict; its requirements are general ones, crafted to accommodate a wide variety of legal systems. But requirements they are nonetheless. The commission that the President has convened to try Hamdan does not meet those requirements.

We have assumed, as we must, that the allegations made in the Government’s charge against Hamdan are true. We have assumed, moreover, the truth of the message implicit in that charge—viz., that Hamdan is a dangerous individual whose beliefs, if acted upon, would cause great harm and even death to innocent civilians, and who would act upon those beliefs if given the opportunity. It bears emphasizing that Hamdan does not challenge, and we do not today address, the Government’s power to detain him for the duration of active hostilities in order to prevent such harm. But in undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction.

Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas and Justice Alito join, dissenting.

On December 30, 2005, Congress enacted the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA). It unambiguously provides that, as of that date, “no court, justice, or judge” shall have jurisdiction to consider the habeas application of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Notwithstanding this plain directive, the Court today concludes that, on what it calls the statute’s most natural reading, every “court, justice, or judge” before whom such a habeas application was pending on December 30 has jurisdiction to hear, consider, and render judgment on it. This conclusion is patently erroneous. And even if it were not, the jurisdiction supposedly retained should, in an exercise of sound equitable discretion, not be exercised.

. .. Worst of all is the Court’s reliance on the legislative history of the DTA to buttress its implausible reading of §1005(e)(1). We have repeatedly held that such reliance is impermissible where, as here, the statutory language is unambiguous. But the Court nevertheless relies both on floor statements from the Senate and (quite heavily) on the drafting history of the DTA. To begin with floor statements: The Court urges that some “statements made by Senators preceding passage of the Act lend further support to” the Court’s interpretation, citing excerpts from the floor debate that support its view, ante, 15–16, n. 10. The Court immediately goes on to discount numerous floor statements by the DTA’s sponsors that flatly contradict its view, because “those statements appear to have been inserted into the Congressional Record after the Senate debate.”  Of course this observation, even if true, makes no difference unless one indulges the fantasy that Senate floor speeches are attended (like the Philippics of Demosthenes) by throngs of eager listeners, instead of being delivered (like Demosthenes’ practice sessions on the beach) alone into a vast emptiness. Whether the floor statements are spoken where no Senator hears, or written where no Senator reads, they represent at most the views of a single Senator. In any event, the Court greatly exaggerates the one-sidedness of the portions of the floor debate that clearly occurred before the DTA’s enactment. Some of the statements of Senator Graham, a sponsor of the bill, only make sense on the assumption that pending cases are covered. And at least one opponent of the DTA unmistakably expressed his understanding that it would terminate our jurisdiction in this very case. (Of course in its discussion of legislative history the Court wholly ignores the President’s signing statement, which explicitly set forth his understanding that the DTA ousted jurisdiction over pending cases.)

But selectivity is not the greatest vice in the Court’s use of floor statements to resolve today’s case. These statements were made when Members of Congress were fully aware that our continuing jurisdiction over this very case was at issue. The question was divisive, and floor statements made on both sides were undoubtedly opportunistic and crafted solely for use in the briefs in this very litigation. The Court’s reliance on such statements cannot avoid the appearance of similar opportunism. In a virtually identical context, the author of today’s opinion has written for the Court that “[t]he legislative history discloses some frankly partisan statements about the meaning of the final effective date language, but those statements cannot plausibly be read as reflecting any general agreement.”  Likewise, the handful of floor statements that the Court treats as authoritative do not “reflec[t] any general agreement.” They reflect the now-common tactic—which the Court once again rewards—of pursuing through floor-speech ipse dixit what could not be achieved through the constitutionally prescribed method of putting language into a bill that a majority of both Houses vote for and the President signs.

Even if Congress had not clearly and constitutionally eliminated jurisdiction over this case, neither this Court nor the lower courts ought to exercise it.

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