This marks the first time the justices will evaluate the constitutionality of one of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies.
Most of the Guantanamo detainees were picked up during the U.S.-led military action taken against the Taliban government and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
The high court combined appeals from two British, two Australian and 12 Kuwaiti nationals who claim they are being unlawfully held with more than 600 others from over 40 nations suspected of being agents of either the Taliban or al-Qaida.
Some of the men have been detained for two years without outside contact, including access to legal representation. The detainees named in the suits have no knowledge of the legal action being taken on their behalf, lawyers from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights told the court.
The U.S. government has classified the men as “unlawful combatants” who do not merit any of the protections guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
The government has been interrogating the men to decide whether they will face a military tribunal or be released. As of mid-October, some 68 men had been released and authorities have recommended six others face possible military tribunals.
Lower courts had found that they didn’t have the authority to decide whether the inmates are being held in violation of the U.S. Constitution as the military base where their jailing took place is outside of U.S. sovereign territory.
The Guantanamo base is a 45-square-mile area on the southeastern tip of Cuba. The land was seized by the United States in the Spanish-American War and has been leased from Cuba for the past century.
The Supreme Court justices said in a written order they would decide whether U.S. “courts lack jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.”
Lawyers for British and Australian detainees asked the high court to take the case, arguing, “The United States has created a prison on Guantanamo Bay that operates entirely outside the law.
“Within the walls of this prison, foreign nationals may be held indefinitely, without charges or evidence of wrongdoing, without access to family, friends or legal counsel, and with no opportunity to establish their innocence,” they maintained.
A group of former U.S. federal judges, diplomats, military officials and human rights advocates all supported the appeals and urged the Supreme Court to hear the case.
“The idea that American executive branch personnel, particularly military personnel, can detain people beyond the reach of habeas corpus is just repugnant to the rule of law,” said John Gibbons, former chief judge of the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, in one of the friend-of-the-court briefs.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson defended the government’s policies, telling the court that the prisoners’ lawsuit has great “potential for interference with the core war powers of the president.”
The court is expected to hear the case sometime next year with a ruling typically expected by the end of June.
In other orders announced Monday, the high court refused to hear an appeal by Global Relief Foundation, an Illinois-based Muslim charity, whose assets were frozen three months after Sept. 11 based on allegations that the organization has ties to al-Qaida operatives.
The court also said it would hear a dispute between two software competitors, agreeing to evaluate whether U.S. companies can be forced to release confidential records to overseas regulators.