Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Habeas Corpus: How Protecting a Written Guarantee Becomes 'Activism'

Last week's decision by the Supreme Court to uphold habeas corpus for Guantanamo Bay detainees has set off a predictable firestorm riddled with precarious assumptions and outright falsehoods. Coverage of the decision has given plenty of time to these presumptuous hypotheticals, but been lax in examining their shaky foundations.

The easiest tenet of the opposition's argument to put down is that which supports the Executive branch's ability of eliminate habeas corpus outright. The ability to challenge detention is not culled from context or some obscure jurisprudence facet of Constitutional law, it is guaranteed explicitly in Article 1, Section 9:

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.

As the US is neither in a state of rebellion or invasion, there is no legal justification for suspension of the writ, and no amount of semantic two-step can work around the clear, succinct language of the founding document. Proponents of Bush's policy often point to Lincoln's suspension of habeas during the Civil War, but as that was a rebellion, it was supported by the Constitutional provision. That is not the case in this instance, and the example is clearly erroneous, though its veracity is rarely questioned despite its false pretense. The text of the Constitution could not possibly be any clearer on this point.

The only question then, was whether or not the rule of law applies in what is officially Cuban territory. But, despite Cuba's nominal dominion over Guantanamo, it is obvious that the US is in actual jurisdiction over the base. Even were it not so, the implication of allowing that line of reasoning to pass--that Guantanamo is completely insulated from Constitutional governance--is that the government could ship anyone, including citizens, to the base and be exempt from the law. It should remain without question that pockets of immunity would not have been endorsed by the writers of the Constitution.

All that is left is to examine the presumptive nature of the opposition to the ruling. John Yoo, that distinguished Constitution-phile, provides a nice bulleted rundown of the fallacies in today's Wall Street Journal.

Under the writ of habeas corpus, Americans (and aliens on our territory) can challenge the legality of their detentions before a federal judge. Until Boumediene, the Supreme Court had never allowed an alien who was captured fighting against the U.S. to use our courts to challenge his detention.

The whole idea of habeas corpus is to establish that the detainees were indeed fighting the US. Yoo, though, presumes that is the case even as he fights against the statute which would be used to establish such a presumption.

In fact, many detainees were not doing anything of the sort when captured. Many have been detained because they were rounded up and turned up by people wanting to profit off of the bounties promised by the US. Others were simply pointed out by others to settle old scores. This was commonplace in Iraq as well, as devoid of a centralized government stamping out sectarian conflict, neighbors sold out neighbors to settle old grudges. Many were simply picked up off the street. Whatever the case, stating categorically that every detainee was captured battling US forces is blatantly false.

Yoo also addresses German POWs during WWII, but again Nazi soldiers were captured on the battlefield and were uniformed members of an enemy force. At the end of the war, they were no longer POWs. The War on Terror is a different animal. By definition, it continues ad infinitum, thus allowing under the MCA indefinite detention of prisoners. Clearly the two cases are not parallel.

In his oped, Yoo returns to his favorite crutch of the President's position as Commander-in-Chief. But the title makes him the top general of the armed forces, and does not grant carte blanche to eliminate provisions of the Constitution outright. To fill a room with 5 lawyers who believed that was the founders' intent would be nearly impossible.

It is the continuing attempt to apply the rules of finite wars such as WWII or the Korean War to the interminable War on Terror that is the most frustrating. By constantly pointing to examples, however ill-applied, from those wars, people like Yoo continue to obfuscate the fact that the US is fighting against an idea--terrorism--and not a defined enemy. The same pretext cannot possibly be applied to both situations.

Predictably, Yoo refers to the Court's decision as yet another example of judicial activism, the sacred cow of the right when confronted with the frustration of its recurrent attempts to eliminate Constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Yoo pretends that the 5 justices in the majority somehow pulled habeas out of whole cloth, when in fact it is written clear as day in plain text. Activism, in this case, would be to declare that certain inconvenient phrases from the document can simply be whitewashed at will.

The debate over the decision invariably regresses to 'support' or 'don't support' the War on Terror, but that is a false argument. The decision made by the Court was not whether or not the US was allowed to detain dangerous individuals. The Court decided that the President, even with Congressional subservience, is not allowed to unilaterally declare the Constitution null and void as the mood suits him.


Tortured Logic
, April 14
Trickle-Down Responsibility, May 9

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