KC Johnson

Impeachment, 2000, Terrorism

  • 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.) READ INTRO AND PART I ONLY.
  • Michael Klarman, “Bush v. Gore Through the Lens of Constitutional  History,” California Law Review (2001)


The “butterfly ballot” used in Palm Beach County, Florida:

The networks call Florida for Al Gore:

2000 presidential election map. Note that if Al Gore had carried his home state (TN) or Dem-leaning NH, the results in FL would have been irrelevant:


  • Bush v. Gore (2000). Question: Should the ballot recount mandated by the Florida Supreme Court be allowed to continue?

Per Curiam.


On November 26, the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission certified the results of the election and declared Governor Bush the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes. On November 27, Vice President Gore, pursuant to Florida’s contest provisions, filed a complaint in Leon County Circuit Court contesting the certification . . . The Supreme Court held that Vice President Gore had satisfied his burden of proof with respect to his challenge to Miami-Dade County’s failure to tabulate, by manual count, 9,000 ballots on which the machines had failed to detect a vote for President (“undervotes”). Noting the closeness of the election, the Court explained that “[o]n this record, there can be no question that there are legal votes within the 9,000 uncounted votes sufficient to place the results of this election in doubt.”  A “legal vote,” as determined by the Supreme Court, is “one in which there is a ‘clear indication of the intent of the voter. ’ ”  The court therefore ordered a hand recount of the 9,000 ballots in Miami-Dade County. Observing that the contest provisions vest broad discretion in the circuit judge to “provide any relief appropriate under such circumstances,” Fla. Stat. §102.168(8) (2000), the Supreme Court further held that the Circuit Court could order “the Supervisor of Elections and the Canvassing Boards, as well as the necessary public officials, in all counties that have not conducted a manual recount or tabulation of the undervotes … to do so forthwith, said tabulation to take place in the individual counties where the ballots are located.” . . . As to Miami-Dade County, the Court concluded that although the 168 votes identified were the result of a partial recount, they were “legal votes [that] could change the outcome of the election.” The Supreme Court therefore directed the Circuit Court to include those totals in the certified results, subject to resolution of the actual vote total from the Miami-Dade partial recount.

The petition presents the following questions: whether the Florida Supreme Court established new standards for resolving Presidential election contests, thereby violating Art. II, §1, cl. 2, of the United States Constitution and failing to comply with 3 U.S.C. § 5 and whether the use of standardless manual recounts violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses. With respect to the equal protection question, we find a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

. . . The right to vote is protected in more than the initial allocation of the franchise. Equal protection applies as well to the manner of its exercise. Having once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another. It must be remembered that “the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.”

There is no difference between the two sides of the present controversy on these basic propositions. Respondents say that the very purpose of vindicating the right to vote justifies the recount procedures now at issue. The question before us, however, is whether the recount procedures the Florida Supreme Court has adopted are consistent with its obligation to avoid arbitrary and disparate treatment of the members of its electorate.

Much of the controversy seems to revolve around ballot cards designed to be perforated by a stylus but which, either through error or deliberate omission, have not been perforated with sufficient precision for a machine to count them. In some cases a piece of the card–a chad–is hanging, say by two corners. In other cases there is no separation at all, just an indentation.

The Florida Supreme Court has ordered that the intent of the voter be discerned from such ballots. For purposes of resolving the equal protection challenge, it is not necessary to decide whether the Florida Supreme Court had the authority under the legislative scheme for resolving election disputes to define what a legal vote is and to mandate a manual recount implementing that definition. The recount mechanisms implemented in response to the decisions of the Florida Supreme Court do not satisfy the minimum requirement for non-arbitrary treatment of voters necessary to secure the fundamental right. Florida’s basic command for the count of legally cast votes is to consider the “intent of the voter.”  This is unobjectionable as an abstract proposition and a starting principle. The problem inheres in the absence of specific standards to ensure its equal application. The formulation of uniform rules to determine intent based on these recurring circumstances is practicable and, we conclude, necessary.

The law does not refrain from searching for the intent of the actor in a multitude of circumstances; and in some cases the general command to ascertain intent is not susceptible to much further refinement. In this instance, however, the question is not whether to believe a witness but how to interpret the marks or holes or scratches on an inanimate object, a piece of cardboard or paper which, it is said, might not have registered as a vote during the machine count. The factfinder confronts a thing, not a person. The search for intent can be confined by specific rules designed to ensure uniform treatment.

The want of those rules here has led to unequal evaluation of ballots in various respects. As seems to have been acknowledged at oral argument, the standards for accepting or rejecting contested ballots might vary not only from county to county but indeed within a single county from one recount team to another.

. . .    The State Supreme Court ratified this uneven treatmentIt mandated that the recount totals from two counties, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, be included in the certified total. The court also appeared to hold sub silentio that the recount totals from Broward County, which were not completed until after the original November 14 certification by the Secretary of State, were to be considered part of the new certified vote totals even though the county certification was not contested by Vice President Gore. Yet each of the counties used varying standards to determine what was a legal vote. Broward County used a more forgiving standard than Palm Beach County, and uncovered almost three times as many new votes, a result markedly disproportionate to the difference in population between the counties.

In addition, the recounts in these three counties were not limited to so-called undervotes but extended to all of the ballots. The distinction has real consequences. A manual recount of all ballots identifies not only those ballots which show no vote but also those which contain more than one, the so-called overvotes. Neither category will be counted by the machine. This is not a trivial concern. At oral argument, respondents estimated there are as many as 110,000 overvotes statewide. As a result, the citizen whose ballot was not read by a machine because he failed to vote for a candidate in a way readable by a machine may still have his vote counted in a manual recount; on the other hand, the citizen who marks two candidates in a way discernable by the machine will not have the same opportunity to have his vote count, even if a manual examination of the ballot would reveal the requisite indicia of intent. Furthermore, the citizen who marks two candidates, only one of which is discernable by the machine, will have his vote counted even though it should have been read as an invalid ballot. The State Supreme Court’s inclusion of vote counts based on these variant standards exemplifies concerns with the remedial processes that were under way.

. . .     The recount process, in its features here described, is inconsistent with the minimum procedures necessary to protect the fundamental right of each voter in the special instance of a statewide recount under the authority of a single state judicial officer. Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.

The question before the Court is not whether local entities, in the exercise of their expertise, may develop different systems for implementing elections. Instead, we are presented with a situation where a state court with the power to assure uniformity has ordered a statewide recount with minimal procedural safeguards. When a court orders a statewide remedy, there must be at least some assurance that the rudimentary requirements of equal treatment and fundamental fairness are satisfied.

. . .     Upon due consideration of the difficulties identified to this point, it is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work. It would require not only the adoption (after opportunity for argument) of adequate statewide standards for determining what is a legal vote, and practicable procedures to implement them, but also orderly judicial review of any disputed matters that might arise. In addition, the Secretary of State has advised that the recount of only a portion of the ballots requires that the vote tabulation equipment be used to screen out undervotes, a function for which the machines were not designed. If a recount of overvotes were also required, perhaps even a second screening would be necessary. Use of the equipment for this purpose, and any new software developed for it, would have to be evaluated for accuracy by the Secretary of State, as required by Fla. Stat. §101.015 (2000).

. . .     None are more conscious of the vital limits on judicial authority than are the members of this Court, and none stand more in admiration of the Constitution’s design to leave the selection of the President to the people, through their legislatures, and to the political sphere. When contending parties invoke the process of the courts, however, it becomes our unsought responsibility to resolve the federal and constitutional issues the judicial system has been forced to confront.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Justice Ginsburg, with whom Justice Stevens joins, and with whom Justice Souter and Justice Breyer join as to Part I, dissenting.

My colleagues have offered a reasonable construction of Florida’s law. Their construction coincides with the view of one of Florida’s seven Supreme Court justices . . .  I might join The Chief Justice were it my commission to interpret Florida law. But disagreement with the Florida court’s interpretation of its own State’s law does not warrant the conclusion that the justices of that court have legislated. There is no cause here to believe that the members of Florida’s high court have done less than “their mortal best to discharge their oath of office,”  and no cause to upset their reasoned interpretation of Florida law.

. . .    No doubt there are cases in which the proper application of federal law may hinge on interpretations of state law. Unavoidably, this Court must sometimes examine state law in order to protect federal rights. But we have dealt with such cases ever mindful of the full measure of respect we owe to interpretations of state law by a State’s highest court. . . .   Just last Term, in Fiore v. White (1999), we took advantage of Pennsylvania’s certification procedure. In that case, a state prisoner brought a federal habeas action claiming that the State had failed to prove an essential element of his charged offense in violation of the Due Process Clause. Id., at 25—26. Instead of resolving the state-law question on which the federal claim depended, we certified the question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for that court to “help determine the proper state-law predicate for our determination of the federal constitutional questions raised.” Id., at 29; id., at 28 (asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court whether its recent interpretation of the statute under which Fiore was convicted “was always the statute’s meaning, even at the time of Fiore’s trial”). The Chief Justice’s willingness to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of Florida law in this case is at least in tension with our reluctance in Fiore even to interpret Pennsylvania law before seeking instruction from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. I would have thought the “cautious approach” we counsel when federal courts address matters of state law, Arizonans, 520 U.S., at 77, and our commitment to “build[ing] cooperative judicial federalism,” Lehman Brothers, 416 U.S., at 391, demanded greater restraint.

Rarely has this Court rejected outright an interpretation of state law by a state high court. Fairfax’s Deviseev. Hunter’s Lessee, (1813), NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, (1958), and Bouie v. City of Columbia,  (1964), cited by The Chief Justice, are three such rare instances. But those cases are embedded in historical contexts hardly comparable to the situation here. Fairfax’s Devisee, which held that the Virginia Court of Appeals had misconstrued its own forfeiture laws to deprive a British subject of lands secured to him by federal treaties, occurred amidst vociferous States’ rights attacks on the Marshall Court. The Virginia court refused to obey this Court’s Fairfax’s Devisee mandate to enter judgment for the British subject’s successor in interest. That refusal led to the Court’s pathmarking decision in Martin v. Hunter’s LesseePatterson, a case decided three months after Cooper v. Aaron,  (1958), in the face of Southern resistance to the civil rights movement, held that the Alabama Supreme Court had irregularly applied its own procedural rules to deny review of a contempt order against the NAACP arising from its refusal to disclose membership lists. We said that “our jurisdiction is not defeated if the nonfederal ground relied on by the state court is without any fair or substantial support.” Bouie, stemming from a lunch counter “sit-in” at the height of the civil rights movement, held that the South Carolina Supreme Court’s construction of its trespass laws–criminalizing conduct not covered by the text of an otherwise clear statute–was “unforeseeable” and thus violated due process when applied retroactively to the petitioners.

The Chief Justice’s casual citation of these cases might lead one to believe they are part of a larger collection of cases in which we said that the Constitution impelled us to train a skeptical eye on a state court’s portrayal of state law. But one would be hard pressed, I think, to find additional cases that fit the mold. As Justice Breyer convincingly explains, this case involves nothing close to the kind of recalcitrance by a state high court that warrants extraordinary action by this Court. The Florida Supreme Court concluded that counting every legal vote was the overriding concern of the Florida Legislature when it enacted the State’s Election Code. The court surely should not be bracketed with state high courts of the Jim Crow South.

. . .     The extraordinary setting of this case has obscured the ordinary principle that dictates its proper resolution: Federal courts defer to state high courts’ interpretations of their state’s own law. This principle reflects the core of federalism, on which all agree.   . . . Were the other members of this Court as mindful as they generally are of our system of dual sovereignty, they would affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.

I agree with Justice Stevens that petitioners have not presented a substantial equal protection claim. Ideally, perfection would be the appropriate standard for judging the recount. But we live in an imperfect world, one in which thousands of votes have not been counted. I cannot agree that the recount adopted by the Florida court, flawed as it may be, would yield a result any less fair or precise than the certification that preceded that recount.

. . .    The Court assumes that time will not permit “orderly judicial review of any disputed matters that might arise.”  But no one has doubted the good faith and diligence with which Florida election officials, attorneys for all sides of this controversy, and the courts of law have performed their duties. Notably, the Florida Supreme Court has produced two substantial opinions within 29 hours of oral argument. In sum, the Court’s conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States.

I dissent.


Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (syllabus only):



certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

No. 05–184. Argued March 28, 2006—Decided June 29, 2006

Pursuant to Congress’ Joint Resolution authorizing the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorist attacks (AUMF), U. S. Armed Forces invaded Afghanistan. During the hostilities, in 2001, militia forces captured petitioner Hamdan, a Yemeni national, and turned him over to the U. S. military, which, in 2002, transported him to prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Over a year later, the President deemed Hamdan eligible for trial by military commission for then-unspecified crimes. After another year, he was charged with conspiracy “to commit … offenses triable by military commission.” In habeas and mandamus petitions, Hamdan asserted that the military commission lacks authority to try him because (1) neither congressional Act nor the common law of war supports trial by this commission for conspiracy, an offense that, Hamdan says, is not a violation of the law of war; and (2) the procedures adopted to try him violate basic tenets of military and international law, including the principle that a defendant must be permitted to see and hear the evidence against him.

The District Court granted habeas relief and stayed the commission’s proceedings, concluding that the President’s authority to establish military commissions extends only to offenders or offenses triable by such a commission under the law of war; that such law includes the Third Geneva Convention; that Hamdan is entitled to that Convention’s full protections until adjudged, under it, not to be a prisoner of war; and that, whether or not Hamdan is properly classified a prisoner of war, the commission convened to try him was established in violation of both the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U. S. C. §801 et seq., and Common Article 3 of the Third Geneva Convention because it had the power to convict based on evidence the accused would never see or hear. The D. C. Circuit reversed. Although it declined the Government’s invitation to abstain from considering Hamdan’s challenge, cf. Schlesinger v. Councilman, 420 U. S. 738 , the appeals court ruled, on the merits, that Hamdan was not entitled to relief because the Geneva Conventions are not judicially enforceable. The court also concluded that Ex parte Quirin, 317 U. S. 1 , foreclosed any separation-of-powers objection to the military commission’s jurisdiction, and that Hamdan’s trial before the commission would violate neither the UCMJ nor Armed Forces regulations implementing the Geneva Conventions.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

415 F. 3d 33, reversed and remanded.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Parts V and VI–D–iv, concluding:

1. The Government’s motion to dismiss, based on the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), is denied. DTA §1005(e)(1) provides that “no court … shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider … an application for … habeas corpus filed by … an alien detained … at Guantanamo Bay.” Section 1005(h)(2) provides that §§1005(e)(2) and (3)—which give the D. C. Circuit “exclusive” jurisdiction to review the final decisions of, respectively, combatant status review tribunals and military commissions—“shall apply with respect to any claim whose review is … pending on” the DTA’s effective date, as was Hamdan’s case. The Government’s argument that §§1005(e)(1) and (h) repeal this Court’s jurisdiction to review the decision below is rebutted by ordinary principles of statutory construction. A negative inference may be drawn from Congress’ failure to include §1005(e)(1) within the scope of §1005(h)(2). Cf., e.g., Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U. S. 320 . “If … Congress was reasonably concerned to ensure that [§§1005(e)(2) and (3)] be applied to pending cases, it should have been just as concerned about [§1005(e)(1)], unless it had the different intent that the latter [section] not be applied to the general run of pending cases.” Id., at 329. If anything, the evidence of deliberate omission is stronger here than it was in Lindh. The legislative history shows that Congress not only considered the respective temporal reaches of §§1005(e)(1), (2), and (3) together at every stage, but omitted paragraph (1) from its directive only after having rejected earlier proposed versions of the statute that would have included what is now paragraph (1) within that directive’s scope. Congress’ rejection of the very language that would have achieved the result the Government urges weighs heavily against the Government’s interpretation. See Doe v. Chao, 540 U. S. 614 . Pp. 7–20.

2. The Government argues unpersuasively that abstention is appropriate under Councilman, which concluded that, as a matter of comity, federal courts should normally abstain from intervening in pending courts-martial against service members, see 420 U. S., at 740. Neither of the comity considerations Councilman identified weighs in favor of abstention here. First, the assertion that military discipline and, therefore, the Armed Forces’ efficient operation, are best served if the military justice system acts without regular interference from civilian courts, see id., at 752, is inapt because Hamdan is not a service member. Second, the view that federal courts should respect the balance Congress struck when it created “an integrated system of military courts and review procedures” is inapposite, since the tribunal convened to try Hamdan is not part of that integrated system. Rather than Councilman, the most relevant precedent is Ex parte Quirin, where the Court, far from abstaining pending the conclusion of ongoing military proceedings, expedited its review because of (1) the public importance of the questions raised, (2) the Court’s duty, in both peace and war, to preserve the constitutional safeguards of civil liberty, and (3) the public interest in a decision on those questions without delay, 317 U. S, at 19. The Government has identified no countervailing interest that would permit federal courts to depart from their general duty to exercise the jurisdiction Congress has conferred on them. Pp. 20–25.

3. The military commission at issue is not expressly authorized by any congressional Act. Quirin held that Congress had, through Article of War 15, sanctioned the use of military commissions to try offenders or offenses against the law of war. 317 U. S., at 28. UCMJ Art. 21, which is substantially identical to the old Art. 15, reads: “The jurisdiction [of] courts-martial shall not be construed as depriving military commissions … of concurrent jurisdiction in respect of offenders or offenses that by statute or by the law of war may be tried by such … commissions.” 10 U. S. C. §821. Contrary to the Government’s assertion, even Quirin did not view that authorization as a sweeping mandate for the President to invoke military commissions whenever he deems them necessary. Rather, Quirin recognized that Congress had simply preserved what power, under the Constitution and the common law of war, the President already had to convene military commissions—with the express condition that he and those under his command comply with the law of war. See 317 U. S., at 28–29. Neither the AUMF nor the DTA can be read to provide specific, overriding authorization for the commission convened to try Hamdan. Assuming the AUMF activated the President’s war powers, see Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U. S. 507 , and that those powers include authority to convene military commissions in appropriate circumstances, see, e.g., id., at 518, there is nothing in the AUMF’s text or legislative history even hinting that Congress intended to expand or alter the authorization set forth in UCMJ Art. 21. Cf. Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85, 105. Likewise, the DTA cannot be read to authorize this commission. Although the DTA, unlike either Art. 21 or the AUMF, was enacted after the President convened Hamdan’s commission, it contains no language authorizing that tribunal or any other at Guantanamo Bay. Together, the UCMJ, the AUMF, and the DTA at most acknowledge a general Presidential authority to convene military commissions in circumstances where justified under the Constitution and laws, including the law of war. Absent a more specific congressional authorization, this Court’s task is, as it was in Quirin, to decide whether Hamdan’s military commission is so justified. Pp. 25–30.

4. The military commission at issue lacks the power to proceed because its structure and procedures violate both the UCMJ and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949. Pp. 49–72.

(a) The commission’s procedures, set forth in Commission Order No. 1, provide, among other things, that an accused and his civilian counsel may be excluded from, and precluded from ever learning what evidence was presented during, any part of the proceeding the official who appointed the commission or the presiding officer decides to “close.” Grounds for closure include the protection of classified information, the physical safety of participants and witnesses, the protection of intelligence and law enforcement sources, methods, or activities, and “other national security interests.” Appointed military defense counsel must be privy to these closed sessions, but may, at the presiding officer’s discretion, be forbidden to reveal to the client what took place therein. Another striking feature is that the rules governing Hamdan’s commission permit the admission of any evidence that, in the presiding officer’s opinion, would have probative value to a reasonable person. Moreover, the accused and his civilian counsel may be denied access to classified and other “protected information,” so long as the presiding officer concludes that the evidence is “probative” and that its admission without the accused’s knowledge would not result in the denial of a full and fair trial. Pp. 49–52.

(b) The Government objects to this Court’s consideration of a procedural challenge at this stage on the grounds, inter alia, that Hamdan will be able to raise such a challenge following a final decision under the DTA, and that there is no basis to presume, before the trial has even commenced, that it will not be conducted in good faith and according to law. These contentions are unsound. First, because Hamdan apparently is not subject to the death penalty (at least as matters now stand) and may receive a prison sentence shorter than 10 years, he has no automatic right to federal-court review of the commission’s “final decision” under DTA §1005(e)(3). Second, there is a basis to presume that the procedures employed during Hamdan’s trial will violate the law: He will be, and indeed already has been, excluded from his own trial. Thus, review of the procedures in advance of a “final decision” is appropriate. Pp. 52–53.

(c) Because UCMJ Article 36 has not been complied with here, the rules specified for Hamdan’s commission trial are illegal. The procedures governing such trials historically have been the same as those governing courts-martial. Although this uniformity principle is not inflexible and does not preclude all departures from courts-martial procedures, any such departure must be tailored to the exigency that necessitates it. That understanding is reflected in Art. 36(b), which provides that the procedural rules the President promulgates for courts-martial and military commissions alike must be “uniform insofar as practicable,” 10 U. S. C. §836(b). The “practicability” determination the President has made is insufficient to justify variances from the procedures governing courts-martial. The President here has determined, pursuant to the requirement of Art. 36(a), that it is impracticable to apply the rules and principles of law that govern “the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts” to Hamdan’s commission. The President has not, however, made a similar official determination that it is impracticable to apply the rules for courts-martial. And even if subsection (b)’s requirements could be satisfied without an official practicability determination, that subsection’s requirements are not satisfied here. Nothing in the record demonstrates that it would be impracticable to apply court-martial rules here. There is no suggestion, e.g., of any logistical difficulty in securing properly sworn and authenticated evidence or in applying the usual principles of relevance and admissibility. It is not evident why the danger posed by international terrorism, considerable though it is, should require, in the case of Hamdan’s trial, any variance from the courts-martial rules. The absence of any showing of impracticability is particularly disturbing when considered in light of the clear and admitted failure to apply one of the most fundamental protections afforded not just by the Manual for Courts-Martial but also by the UCMJ itself: The right to be present. See 10 U. S. C. A. §839(c). Because the jettisoning of so basic a right cannot lightly be excused as “practicable,” the courts-martial rules must apply. Since it is undisputed that Commission Order No. 1 deviates in many significant respects from those rules, it necessarily violates Art. 36(b). Pp. 53–62.

(d) The procedures adopted to try Hamdan also violate the Geneva Conventions. The D. C. Circuit dismissed Hamdan’s challenge in this regard on the grounds, inter alia, that the Conventions are not judicially enforceable and that, in any event, Hamdan is not entitled to their protections. Neither of these grounds is persuasive. Pp. 62–68.

(i) The appeals court relied on a statement in Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U. S. 763 , n. 14, suggesting that this Court lacked power even to consider the merits of a Convention argument because the political and military authorities had sole responsibility for observing and enforcing prisoners’ rights under the Convention. However, Eisentrager does not control here because, regardless of the nature of the rights conferred on Hamdan, cf. United States v. Rauscher, 119 U. S. 407 , they are indisputably part of the law of war, see Hamdi, 542 U. S., at 520–521, compliance with which is the condition upon which UCMJ Art. 21 authority is granted. Pp. 63–65.

(ii) Alternatively, the appeals court agreed with the Government that the Conventions do not apply because Hamdan was captured during the war with al Qaeda, which is not a Convention signatory, and that conflict is distinct from the war with signatory Afghanistan. The Court need not decide the merits of this argument because there is at least one provision of the Geneva Conventions that applies here even if the relevant conflict is not between signatories. Common Article 3, which appears in all four Conventions, provides that, in a “conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties [i.e., signatories], each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum,” certain provisions protecting “[p]ersons … placed hors de combat by … detention,” including a prohibition on “the passing of sentences … without previous judgment … by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees … recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” The D. C. Circuit ruled Common Article 3 inapplicable to Hamdan because the conflict with al Qaeda is international in scope and thus not a “conflict not of an international character. ” That reasoning is erroneous. That the quoted phrase bears its literal meaning and is used here in contradistinction to a conflict between nations is demonstrated by Common Article 2, which limits its own application to any armed conflict between signatories and provides that signatories must abide by all terms of the Conventions even if another party to the conflict is a nonsignatory, so long as the nonsignatory “accepts and applies” those terms. Common Article 3, by contrast, affords some minimal protection, falling short of full protection under the Conventions, to individuals associated with neither a signatory nor even a nonsignatory who are involved in a conflict “in the territory of” a signatory. The latter kind of conflict does not involve a clash between nations (whether signatories or not). Pp. 65–68.

(iii) While Common Article 3 does not define its “regularly constituted court” phrase, other sources define the words to mean an “ordinary military cour[t]” that is “established and organized in accordance with the laws and procedures already in force in a country.” The regular military courts in our system are the courts-martial established by congressional statute. At a minimum, a military commission can be “regularly constituted” only if some practical need explains deviations from court-martial practice. No such need has been demonstrated here. Pp. 69–70.

(iv) Common Article 3’s requirements are general, crafted to accommodate a wide variety of legal systems, but they are requirements nonetheless. The commission convened to try Hamdan does not meet those requirements. P. 72.

(d) Even assuming that Hamden is a dangerous individual who would cause great harm or death to innocent civilians given the opportunity, the Executive nevertheless must comply with the prevailing rule of law in undertaking to try him and subject him to criminal punishment. P. 72.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer, concluded in Parts V and VI–D–iv:

1. The Government has not charged Hamdan with an “offense … that by the law of war may be tried by military commission,” 10 U. S. C. §821. Of the three sorts of military commissions used historically, the law-of-war type used in Quirin and other cases is the only model available to try Hamdan. Among the preconditions, incorporated in Article of War 15 and, later, UCMJ Art. 21, for such a tribunal’s exercise of jurisdiction are, inter alia, that it must be limited to trying offenses committed within the convening commander’s field of command, i.e., within the theater of war, and that the offense charged must have been committed during, not before or after, the war. Here, Hamdan is not alleged to have committed any overt act in a theater of war or on any specified date after September 11, 2001. More importantly, the offense alleged is not triable by law-of-war military commission. Although the common law of war may render triable by military commission certain offenses not defined by statute, Quirin, 317 U. S., at 30, the precedent for doing so with respect to a particular offense must be plain and unambiguous, cf., e.g., Loving v. United States, 517 U. S. 748 . 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. Moreover, that conspiracy is not a recognized violation of the law of war is confirmed by other international sources, including, e.g., the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which pointedly refused to recognize conspiracy to commit war crimes as such a violation. Because the conspiracy charge does not support the commission’s jurisdiction, the commission lacks authority to try Hamdan. Pp. 30–49.

2. The phrase “all the guarantees … recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples” in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions is not defined, but it must be understood to incorporate at least the barest of the trial protections recognized by customary international law. The procedures adopted to try Hamdan deviate from those governing courts-martial in ways not justified by practical need, and thus fail to afford the requisite guarantees. Moreover, various provisions of Commission Order No. 1 dispense with the principles, which are indisputably part of customary international law, that an accused must, absent disruptive conduct or consent, be present for his trial and must be privy to the evidence against him. Pp. 70–72.

Justice Kennedy, agreeing that Hamdan’s military commission is unauthorized under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U. S. C. §§836 and 821, and the Geneva Conventions, concluded that there is therefore no need to decide whether Common Article 3 of the Conventions requires that the accused have the right to be present at all stages of a criminal trial or to address the validity of the conspiracy charge against Hamdan. Pp. 17–19.

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