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How the Supreme Court Struck Back

Why the Justices said no to the Bush administration's detainee policy

| Mon Jul. 24, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

But the Court went on to find that Congress had also required military tribunals to conform to the law of war, and that the tribunals impermissibly violated a particular law of war -- Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which requires that detainees be tried by a "regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

Common Article 3 is denominated "common" because it appears in each of the four Geneva Conventions. It sets forth the basic human rights that apply to all persons detained in conflicts "not of an international character." The administration has long argued that because the struggle with al-Qaeda is international, not domestic, Common Article 3 does not apply. The Court rejected that view, explaining that the phrase "not of an international character" was meant in its literal sense, to cover all conflicts not between nations, or "inter-national" in character. (Conflicts between nations are covered by other provisions of the Geneva Conventions.) Since the war with al-Qaeda is a conflict between a nation and a nonstate force, the Court ruled, it is "not of an international character," and Common Article 3 applies.

The Bush administration devoted much of its brief to arguing that the Geneva Conventions are not enforceable by individuals in U.S. courts, and Hamdan's lawyers devoted equal space to arguing the opposite. The Court, however, neatly sidestepped that question, finding that it need not decide it because Congress had incorporated the Geneva Conventions into U.S. law when it required that military tribunals adhere to the "law of war."

The fact that the Court decided the case at all in the face of Congress's efforts to strip the Court of jurisdiction is remarkable in itself. That the Court then broke away from its history of judicial deference to security claims in wartime to rule against the President, not even pausing at the argument that the decisions of the commander in chief are "binding on the courts," suggests just how troubled the Court's majority was by the President's assertion of unilateral executive power. That the Court relied so centrally on international law in its reasoning, however, is what makes the decision truly momentous.


The Hamdan decision has sweeping implications for many aspects of the Bush doctrine, including military tribunals, NSA spying, and the interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects. With respect to trying alleged war criminals, the administration now has two options. Without changing the law, it can put into effect the regular court-martial procedures that are used for trying members of the American military. The administration has already rejected that option, and has instead said that it will ask Congress for explicit approval of military tribunals that afford defendants fewer protections than courts-martial would. Because the Court's decision rests on statutory grounds, the President could in theory seek legislation authorizing the very procedures that the Court found wanting. Already, Senators Jon Kyl, Lindsay Graham, Arlen Specter, and others have announced that they will seek legislation to authorize military tribunals.

But because the Court also ruled that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies, and that the tribunals as currently constituted violate that provision, legislative reform is not so simple. Were Congress to approve the tribunals in their present form, it would thereby be authorizing a violation of Common Article 3. Congress unquestionably has the legal power, as a matter of domestic law, to authorize such a violation. Treaties and legislation are said to be of the same stature, and therefore Congress may override treaties by enacting superseding laws. But passing a law that blatantly violates a treaty obligation is no small matter. And the U.S. has a strong interest in respecting the Geneva Conventions, since they protect our own soldiers when captured abroad. It is one thing to put forward an arguable interpretation of the treaty, as the administration did in contending that Common Article 3 simply did not apply in Hamdan's case. It is another thing to blatantly violate the treaty. As a result, the Hamdan decision is likely to force the administration to make whatever procedures it adopts conform to the dictates of Common Article 3.

The Court's decision also has significant implications for the controversy over President Bush's authorization of NSA spying without court approval. On its face, that program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which requires that a special court grant permission for wiretapping. The administration has defended the NSA program with two arguments. It claims that Congress implicitly authorized the program when it enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda in 2001. And it maintains that the President has inherent unilateral power to authorize such surveillance as commander in chief, notwithstanding the fact that it was criminally banned by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

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