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Homeland Security

30 June 2006

Supreme Court Finds Military Commissions Unconstitutional

President Bush says he will conform with ruling

Washington -- President Bush said he will conform with the findings of the June 29 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that using military commissions to try Guantanamo detainees is unconstitutional.  In the court's 5-3 decision, the ruling said these trials were illegal under U.S. military law and the Geneva Conventions.

“I understand we're in a war on terror; that these people were picked up off of a battlefield,” President Bush said. “I will protect the people and, at the same time, conform with the findings of the Supreme Court.”

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Stevens wrote that at least one provision of the Geneva Conventions applies to Hamdan. The U.S. government had argued that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to detainees who were captured as a result of the U.S. war on terrorism, because terrorist groups are not signatories to the conventions.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national and former driver for Osama bin Laden has been detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. He is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, murder and terrorism.

Hamdan is one of 14 people designated for a war crimes trial. Ten of these cases involve Guantanamo detainees, a senior administration official said in a Department of Justice teleconference with reporters June 29.

The Supreme Court decision overturns a ruling by a federal appeals court that found the military commissions as established by the president to be competent tribunals.  Because Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts was serving on the appeals court at the time of its ruling, he did not vote on the Supreme Court case.

President Bush said at a White House press conference that he would consider working "with the Congress to determine whether or not the military tribunals will be an avenue in which to give people their day in court." A transcript of the press conference is available at the White House Web site.

A senior administration official reiterated the president's statements. "We respect the court's decision issued today and intend to work with Congress to establish procedures for trying enemy combatants that comply with the Supreme Court's ruling and that will allow us to proceed with trials as soon as possible," the official told reporters. The official noted that the court did not find any constitutional impediment to the president and Congress working together to institute a military commission.

The Supreme Court case did not review the authority to detain people as part of the war on terror.  "Today's decision does not in any way affect the ability of the president as commander in chief to detain enemy combatants," a senior administration official said.

Currently there are about 450 detainees at the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.  More information is available on the Department of Defense Detainees Web site.

The full text (PDF, 185 pages) of the Supreme Court's ruling is available on the Supreme Court Web site.

For additional information, see Detainee Issues.

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

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