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Homeland Security

Backgrounder: The Impact of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Lionel Beehner, Staff Writer
June 29, 2006


The Supreme Court has ruled that the Bush administration's decision to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay in military war tribunals is illegal. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld the Court ruled that the military commissions do not comply with either U.S. military law or international law, specifically the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees during wartime. The landmark decision marks the second time the country's highest court has ruled to check the power of the executive branch in its execution of the war on terror. In 2004's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Court ruled the White House does not have a "blank check" to indefinitely hold and deny legal access to detainees who are U.S. citizens. The Hamdan decision is expected to have even more far-reaching consequences for the 450 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which has emerged as a lightning rod of criticism for human rights advocates.

What did the Supreme Court ruling say?

"The rules specified for Hamdan's trial are illegal," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority in the June 29 decision, finding that the proposed military commissions comply neither with the U.S. military's Uniform Code of Justice nor the Geneva Conventions' Article III, which guarantees certain rights for the detained during wartime. Stevens wrote that the proposed commissions do not uphold the defendants' right to be present at the proceeding. "The court is saying you have to provide this basic level of fairness," says Deborah Pearlstein, director of Human Rights First's U.S. Law and Security Program. "That is, the defendant has the right to see the evidence against him. Otherwise, how do you defend yourself?"

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Copyright 2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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