Wednesday, June 18, 2008


My latest FindLaw column explains the disagreement between the majority and dissent in Boumediene as partly a conflict between (1) checks and balances (maj); and (2) separation of powers (dis). If that shorthand is not sufficient to explain what I mean, please read the column. Here I want to raise an issue that was called to my attention by attorney and writer Doug Parker (who, among other things, has an excellent article on Justice Kennedy forthcoming in The Green Bag). In an email to me, Doug notes that Justice Kennedy's opinion in Boumediene states: "Some of [the petitioners] were apprehended on the battlefield in Afghanistan, others in places as far away from there as Bosnia and Gambia." The opinion goes on to treat all the petitioners the same.

As Doug says, and I agree, it is hardly self-evident that battlefield captives (i.e., people taken captive on a battlefield) should be entitled to the same procedural protections as people that the U.S. and its allies have essentially arrested or abducted. In wartime, non-combatants occasionally find themselves in active theaters of war, but we can assume that most of the people apprehended on the battlefield are in fact enemy combatants. By contrast, people scooped up from civilian life have a prima facie right to liberty. To permit them to be held without access to a civilian court (via habeas corpus or an adequate substitute) would put liberty at enormous risk.

Although equal treatment for battlefield captives and other war-on-terror detainees is not inevitable, I want to offer a tentative defense of Justice Kennedy's treatment of them as such. Traditionally, prisoners of war have not been granted access to civilian courts--and given the possibility of detaining tens of thousands of POWs in a conventional war, with good reason. But POWs have protections that the Bush Administration has denied to the Gitmo detainees, and so it is fair to make the Administration pay the price: If you want to invoke the traditional exemption from civilian court scrutiny for POWs, treat your captives as POWs.

The best objection to this approach would note that terrorism suspects should not be classified as either POWs or conventional criminals; they occupy an intermediate status for which civilian courts are not the appropriate vehicle. I think there is something to this argument but it's worth noting that neither Congress nor President Bush has developed it in a coherent way: They have treated these suspects within the war paradigm, but simply as "unlawful" combatants. Ex Parte Quirin (the Nazi saboteur case) provides a place for the unlawful combatant category within U.S. law, but it is still an awkward fit for non-battlefield terrorism suspects. Accordingly, perhaps the best reading of Boumediene (and of Hamdi, Rasul and Hamdan as well) is that the Supreme Court is telling Congress and the President: If you want to create a new paradigm, we might consider how it fits within our constitutional system, but if you use the war paradigm, obey the rules we have.

Posted by Mike Dorf


egarber said...

In one of Linda Greehnhouse's articles about the ruling, I think she mentioned that the majority didn't want its opinion to be read to apply in a battlefield setting -- i.e., this was only about Gitmo and its unique circumstance.

I still haven't been able to read the whole thing, so can somebody answer this below?

Did the majority specifically say as much, that it shouldn't be read to imply that people captured in Afghanistan instantly have a habeas right in U.S. courts?

egarber said...

Greenhouse, I mean. I have spelling issues :)

Michael C. Dorf said...

yes, that's right. the majority says there's no right to habeas at the battlefield immediately after capture. but my point was that the majority's opinion expressly does apply to people taken from a battlefield to Gitmo.

egarber said...

Yep, I understand -- I was just looking for broader clarification.

Last night, my wife and I were watching some awful MSNBC show about Obama's defense of the ruling (Man, I'm gonna miss Russert).

We concluded that maybe the best way to summarize the ruling is as follows:

The Court had to draw a line. As defined by our leaders, the "war on terror" carries no geographic or time limits, so without a firm defense of habeas, presidents will continue to pluck foreigners out of society anywhere across the globe, stamp him an "enemy combatant", and potentially put him away for ever.

There will be tough calls -- such as here, where a prisoner who is captured on a battlefield is so far removed in space and time that he deserves a hearing. But as Mike describes it in his findlaw piece, to me it's accurate to say there's no reason to think that Kennedy's "functional" approach will lead to battlefield interference. In fact, the majority said as much (this was the clarity I was looking for).

As an aside, the MSNBC host said that Obama should refrain from saying "habeas" -- that's too confusing for voters. Instead, he should say "due process". But if Barack uses the latter term, it opens him up to the very implication he was trying to avoid in the first place yesterday: that he favors giving these prisoners full trial rights in the U.S.

Is it really too much for Americans to at least briefly educate themselves on habeas corpus? If this show host was right, and that word sounds too foreign to mean anything, then that's a pretty sad commentary.

Sobek said...

Pardon what is now becoming my habit of going off-topic, but there aren't many Obama posts, so my options are limited. I would just like to say that I'm somewhat reassured about Obama's recent statement to AIPAC that he wants an undivided Jerusalem (followed up less than twenty-four hours later with a retraction after pressure by Palestinian groups).

According to foreign policy advisor Daniel Kurtzer, he's not a duplicitous panderer who caved to pressure faster than Michael Moore caves in to the last Hostess Cupcake in the box -- he's just too friggin stupid to realize that the word "undivided" means something specific when referring to Israel. I feel much better now.

Yes, people make mistakes when speaking. I can barely keep my own kids' names straight. But this was a major, prepared speech to a critical voting block by a guy who wants to lead the free world.

Incidentally, if Obama can't stand up to his own base here in America for more than a full day, how does he expect to stand up to Iran and North Korea? I guess when your advisors learned everything they need to know about conflict resolution from Winnie the Pooh...

Back on topic: Omar Khadr just filed a petition complaining that he was never read his rights, after throwing a grenade that blew up an American soldier in Afghanistan. What "rights" might that include? Thanks to SCOTUS, no one really has any idea.

Mortimer Brezny said...

but my point was that the majority's opinion expressly does apply to people taken from a battlefield to Gitmo.

Thanks for this. One of the few honest assessments of the issues in the majority and dissents.

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