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Homeland Security

21 April 2004

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Guantanamo Detainee Case

Case is first to test U.S. policies on detainees

By Alexandra Abboud
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. Supreme Court on April 20 heard oral arguments on the first case to address the legal implications of the war on terror and the rights of the approximately 600 detainees being held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay to bring their cases before U.S. courts.

The question before the court is whether or not U.S. courts have jurisdiction over foreign citizens captured abroad. Theodore Olsen, the solicitor general of the United States, argued that the federal habeas corpus laws, the laws that allow prisoners to challenge their detention in U.S. courts, do not apply to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

A demand by the prisoners to have their case heard in U.S. courts requires the Supreme Court to grant a legal right "that is not authorized by Congress, does not arise from the Constitution [and] has never been exercised by [the Supreme] Court," he said.

John Gibbons, the lawyer representing the detainees said, "What is at stake in this case is the authority of the federal courts to uphold the rule of law." The government's argument that it is immune from the U.S. judicial system creates "a lawless enclave" in Guantanamo, he continued.

But the detainees at Guantanamo present a special case, Olson argued. "The United States is at war," he said. The president has authorization "to use all necessary and appropriate force to deter and prevent acts of terrorism against the United States," Olson said.

Justice Steven Breyer expressed concern over the broad powers granted to the government during times of war. "I'm still honestly most worried about the fact that there would be a large category of unchecked and uncheckable actions dealing with the detention of individuals that are being held in a place where America has the power to do everything," he said.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist expressed reservations about the potential burden on U.S. courts if required to hear cases from foreigners abroad. According to Rehnquist, granting jurisdiction to the U.S. courts over detainees could result in "800 different district judges" becoming involved in the cases.

One of the most important issues in the case is the question of the status of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The United States leased the property from Cuba in 1903 and the base exists independently from that nation. The Supreme Court will have to decide if Cuba's technical sovereignty over the land on which the naval base was built will result in prisoners having no recourse in U.S. courts.

The court is expected to hand down a decision on the case, Rasul v. Bush and al Odah v. U.S., in June.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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