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The Supreme Court Rejects Military Tribunals

June 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The Supreme Court rejects the administration’s approach to justice at Guantanamo. We begin with the specifics of the decision, and we go to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal for that.

Again, Marcia, welcome.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Thanks, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: This centered on a man named Hamdan. Tell us who he was and what he was doing at Guantanamo.

MARCIA COYLE: He was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 by local militia forces, turned over to the U.S. military, transferred to Guantanamo Bay. The government contends he was Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur or driver in bin Laden’s motor pool.

President Bush designated him an enemy combatant, and he became one of the first — part of the first group of enemy combatants to be told to stand trial by military commission.

JIM LEHRER: And his lawyers challenged that, and it was that challenge that ended up before the court today, right?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: And the decision…

MARCIA COYLE: All right.


Justice Stevens wrote the majority

JIM LEHRER: ... tell us what they said.

MARCIA COYLE: OK. A 5-3 majority, lead by Justice John Paul Stevens, said that these military commissions were not authorized by any congressional statute. The court rejected the Bush administration's claim that the authorization for the use of military force, enacted by Congress after 9/11, gave them authority to establish the commissions, as did the Detainee Treatment Act that was enacted by Congress last December.

The court said, in the absence of a specific statutory authorization, it examined the military commissions to see if they complied with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs setting up military courts, as well as...

JIM LEHRER: And governs regular court martials, as well.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. As well as the Geneva Convention's particularly common Article 3, which the United States has accepted as binding law. And the court found that these commissions violate those laws.

It found they had important shortcomings in such aspects as prohibiting an enemy combatant from being present at his own trial, ambiguous standards for admissibility of evidence on...

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And John Paul Stevens wrote the majority?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, he did.

JIM LEHRER: And then who were the four other justices with him?

No blank check in time of war

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice David Souder, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Justice Breyer said something about a blank check, did he not, in his separate opinion?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, he did. It's the second time we've heard that. We heard that two years ago when the Supreme Court took up its very first terrorism-related case, Hamdi, involving an American enemy combatant.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said at the time that the president does not have a blank check in time of war. And Justice Breyer repeated that today, also emphasizing that it was Congress's role here to authorize the president, and the president could return to Congress to seek the authorization.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say, Marcia, that the court declared these tribunals simply illegal, or did they go as far as saying they were unconstitutional, as well?

MARCIA COYLE: I think it's fair to say they're illegal because they didn't comply with law, and I would leave it at that.

JIM LEHRER: Leave it at that, OK.

Now, the dissenters. There were some strong dissents. Tell us about them.

MARCIA COYLE: This was a rather dramatic moment in the courtroom, not only for Justice Stevens who read his opinion; Justice Clarence Thomas read the main dissent from the bench. And as he noted at the beginning, it was the first time in his 15 years on the court that he felt compelled to read a dissent.

He disagreed with the court's interpretation of the authorization of the use of military force and the Detainee Treatment Act. He felt they did authorize the president here. He also felt the president deserved great deference in making these decisions in his role as commander in chief.

Justice Roberts sat out of the case

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, the reason Justice Roberts, Chief Justice Roberts didn't participate, explain that.

MARCIA COYLE: OK. Justice Roberts...

JIM LEHRER: That's why the vote was 5-3 rather than 5-4.

MARCIA COYLE: That's correct. Chief Justice Roberts actually sat on this case, participated in the lower court decision as a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And he voted against Mr. Hamdan.

He rescued himself once he was elevated to the Supreme Court. And it was clear he would rescue himself in order to avoid the appearance of bias or any sort of conflict.

JIM LEHRER: So it's correct to say, though, that the five majorities overruled the chief justice in an earlier incarnation, is that correct?

MARCIA COYLE: That's very correct.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now, just for the record, too, this is the last decision of this session of the court, correct?

MARCIA COYLE: It is. The court wrapped up all decisions today and will reconvene the first Monday in October.

JIM LEHRER: OK, Marcia, thank you very much.

MARCIA COYLE: You're welcome, Jim.