June 25, 2008 – The right of a prisoner to challenge his confinement is central to the American way of justice, and to our reputation as a fair and compassionate nation.
So it is a relief to have those values reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, although by a scarily narrow 5-4 margin. The justices’ majority ruling this month is the latest to criticize the Bush administration’s treatment of so-called enemy combatants detained at Guantanamo Bay. It says the detainees rounded up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have a constitutional right to challenge their confinement in civil court under the principle of habeas corpus.
Dissenters have decried this Supreme Court ruling as a dangerous, even disastrous, decision. Justice Antonin Scalia went so far as to say it would “certainly cause more Americans to be killed” by terrorists. But this is the rhetoric of fear that has given the Bush administration permission to trample on the Constitution in the name of national security. Fear rather than reason has permitted abuse of prisoners that most reasonable people would view as torture, and it has denied prisoners due process for years.
This behavior has shown the world a side of the United States at odds with the human rights standards to which we hold other nations.
The 270 detainees remaining at Guantanamo are not all innocent. Many are bad guys no doubt guilty of criminal acts. But they are not being set free — they are merely being given the chance to plead their cases through legal channels.
This ruling is the third rebuff from the high court of the administration’s attempt to end-run the Constitution on this issue. Instead of trying again to deny detainees basic rights, it should concentrate on preparing evidence to justify holding them.