In a stinging defeat for the Bush administration, the Supreme Court ruled today that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have a constitutional right to challenge their detentions in federal court and that congressional legislation has failed to provide a reasonable substitute for such a hearing.
The ruling invalidates portions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which created military tribunals to hear the cases of those held at Guantanamo.
The decision was 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the four liberal justices on the court.
Writing for the majority opinion striking down the Military Commissions Act, Kennedy wrote, "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times."
President Bush reacted to the decision today at a joint press conference in Rome with Prime Minister Sivlio Berlusconi.
"It's a Supreme Court decision," Bush said. "We will abide by the decision. That doesn't mean I have to agree with it. It was a deeply divided court. I strongly agree with those who dissented."
The Justice Department, too, responded Thursday with a statement from deputy director of public affairs Peter A. Carr.
"We are disappointed with the Court's decision," the statement said. "The Court recognized that an adjustment to typical habeas proceedings may be appropriate, but required the hundreds of actions challenging the detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo to be moved to district court. The Department is reviewing the decision and its implications on the existing detainee litigation."
The stakes are enormous. The justices have thrown open the courthouse doors for the 270 detainees currently being held at Gitmo who will now argue that they should be allowed to be present in court with access to most of the evidence against them. It will also affect the cases of some detainees who have been charged with war crimes.
Kennedy wrote: "Liberty and Security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law."
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a blistering dissent and suggested that today's decision will damage national security. Scalia wrote "the game of bait-and-switch that today's opinion plays upon the nation's commander in chief will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."
Scalia also made note that some former detainees released from Guantanamo have returned to the battlefield. "Their return to the kill illustrates the incredible difficulty of assessing who is and who is not an enemy combatant in a foreign theater of operations where the environment does not lend itself to rigorous evidence collection."
Chief Justice John Roberts also vehemently disagreed with the majority opinion. "So who has won?" he wrote. "Not the detainees. The court's analysis leaves them with only the prospect of further litigation." Roberts went on to write, "and certainly not the American people, who today lose a bit more control over the conduct of this nation's foreign policy to unelected, politically unaccountable judges."