Detainees Deserve Their Day in Court

Last summer, in an important but limited ruling and over the protests of the Bush administration, the Supreme Court said that the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees had the right to appeal their detention in the U.S. courts.

Even though the high court didn’t go beyond that, it was an important step in the laborious process of knocking down the administration’s argument that the White House can do whatever it wants with captives as long as the president deems them illegal enemy combatants.

This week, U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green ruled that the 550 detainees have the right to file for habeas corpus, to be brought before a judge and either charged or released.

Further, she ruled that captured fighters for the Taliban government could ask the courts to declare them prisoners of war and thus entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. The administration had insisted that the international treaties on treatment of prisoners of war did not apply to the Taliban since they, too, were illegal enemy combatants.

The Pentagon had established a system of tribunals and procedures to review the status of the detainees, but Green ruled them unconstitutional because they were so stacked against the defendants, who had no absolute access to lawyers, no way of challenging the evidence against them and whose own testimony might be tainted by torture.

Wrote the judge, “Although this nation unquestionably must take strong action under the leadership of the commander in chief to protect itself against enormous and unprecedented threats, that necessity cannot negate the existence of the most basic fundamental rights for which the people of this country have fought and died for well over 200 years.”

However, two weeks earlier, another federal district judge, Richard Leon, ruled that the detainees could indeed apply to the federal courts but that “no viable legal theory” supported their right to actually get relief like habeas corpus.

What all this means is that the detainees are once again headed to the Supreme Court. This time, the justices should rule that the detainees must be given meaningful access to the courts and not just permitted to go through the motions.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)