The Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush settled a key constitutional issue: all prisoners detained at Guantánamo Bay are constitutionally entitled to bring habeas corpus in federal court to challenge the legality of their detention.
This 5–4 decision was correct. The conservative justices in the minority were wrong to suggest that the decision constitutes reckless judicial intervention in military matters that the Constitution reserves exclusively for Congress and the president. (Disclosure: I joined in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on the plaintiff ’s behalf.)
Yet Boumediene is rich in constitutional ironies. In addressing whether non−U.S. citizens detained outside the United States are entitled to habeas corpus, the court passed up an opportunity to clarify the law, and instead based its reasoning, flimsily, on a habeas corpus case that was decided just after World War II. This is too bad, because issues as important as habeas corpus should turn not on fancy intellectual footwork but on a candid appraisal of the relevant facts and legal principles.
At the core of the dispute in Boumediene is the Constitution’s suspension clause: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” Unfortunately, the text neglects to specify the grounds for granting habeas corpus. And historical precedent is inconclusive on the question of when it should be available to aliens held in U.S. custody outside the United States.
In Johnson v. Eisentrager, a case involving illegal German combatants from World War II, the court held in 1950 that citizens could bring habeas corpus whether they were detained in the United States or abroad. Aliens, on the other hand, had the right only if they were detained within the United States. In writing the Eisentrager decision, Justice Robert Jackson mentioned the practical and financial difficulties of prosecuting enemy aliens overseas but gave them little weight.
This year, in his majority opinion in Boumediene, Justice Anthony Kennedy has made that minor issue in Eisentrager into a key element of the case, acknowledging that the government might have to go to some trouble and expense to ensure that the prisoners at Guantánamo are able to challenge their detentions. Boumediene need not have rested on this sleight of hand.
Nothing in the suspension clause distinguishes citizens from aliens. Likewise, the due-process clause extends its constitutional protections to all “persons,” citizens and aliens alike. If the conditions for suspending habeas corpus are identical for citizen and alien, so too should be the conditions for applying it. If citizens overseas are entitled to habeas corpus, so are aliens. Viewed this way, the court did not need to decide whether or not Guantánamo was U.S. territory. Its ambiguous status no longer matters. Eisentrager disappears on originalist grounds.
Overruling Eisentrager on this point would not routinely entitle everyone to habeas corpus all the time. Enemy prisoners of war are never granted it, either in the United States or abroad. What matters is whether a prisoner is or is not an enemy combatant.
The defendants in Eisentrager, German war criminals, admitted being enemy combatants. The six plaintiffs in Boumediene, accused of plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia, claim they are not. They should be entitled to challenge both the government’s definition of an enemy combatant and the factual basis of their arrest. And they should be able to do so, as the court stressed, under standard habeas corpus procedures that allow them to present evidence and confront witnesses, not under the paltry procedures outlined by the 2006 Military Commissions Act.
If found to be enemy combatants, they can be held for the duration of the war and interrogated, if desired, like any other detainees. If not, they must be tried for some particular offense or released.
The defendants’ entire case would collapse if the Bush administration were prepared to offer substantial evidence of their enemy-combatant status, sparing everyone unneeded uncertainty and expense. Boumediene v. Bush is not a license to allow hardened terrorists to go free. It is a rejection of the alarmist view that our geopolitical position is so fragile that we must abandon our commitment to preventing Star Chamber proceedings that result in arbitrary incarceration.