Hamdan v. Rumsfeld: A (Tentative) Guide for the Perplexed

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the recent Supreme Court case concerning the use of special military commissions to try Guantanamo prisoners, is a bear to boil down, accurately, in a single blog post. It touches on a perfect storm of arcane questions: customary international law, treaty interpretation, the common law of war, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and jurisdiction-stripping.

The Court’s basic argument, as I understand it, is this: Congress can set the rules governing military commissions in most cases, including this one. Those rules, spelled out in the U.S. Code of Military Justice and corresponding treaties, specify as follows:

  • The commissions must conform as much as practical to the procedures that govern standing courts-martial (the standing tribunals in which U.S. serviceman can be tried) and ordinary civil criminal trials.
  • The Geneva Convention sets additional, overlapping requirements that trial of prisoners must occur in “regularly constituted” courts.

Those requirements have been violated. While the commissions depart from the standard procedures of courts-martial, the president hasn’t made a sufficient showing that consistency with the procedures of ordinary courts-martial isn’t a “practical” option, as U.S. law (specifically, Article 36 of the U.S. Code of Military Justice) requires. Because the president hasn’t made that showing, the Gitmo commissions also aren’t “regularly constituted” courts — and therefore trying persons before the commissions violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

Got that? Good, because there are some more wrinkles:

The Court also holds that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention is part of the “law of war” that governs military commissions under U.S. law. That means that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention is a restraint on the procedures that govern the commissions. Furthermore, the Court holds that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to the armed conflict with al Qaeda. That suggests that the Geneva Convention is a restraint on the way we treat prisoners who are in U.S. custody, since Common Article 3 requires that they be treated humanely.

Finally, the Court lays out a safe harbor for the administration. If the administration (1) adopts procedures and oversight mechanisms that apply to courts-martial — particularly, standards and procedures that insulate the “presiding officer” (judge-like officer who presides over trials in commissions) from control by political appointees selected by the SecDef, and (2) conform standards governing admission of evidence to the rules that govern courts-martial, the commissions might be upheld. Also, if the administration offers record evidence that the procedures of courts-martial are impractical, it might also secure judicial approval of the commissions. Even if it doesn’t do this, the military can still hold Guantanamo detainees indefinitely without trial. The administration can also convince Congress to approve the procedures it prefers.

Here’s some of what the Court didn’t decide:

  1. Can Congress withdraw the Supreme Court’s authority to hear future challenges to the military commissions by persons who aren’t yet enmeshed in a prosecution before a commission? We don’t know. The Court holds only that Congress hasn’t withdrawn its jurisdiction over prosecutions already initiated.
  2. Is the Detainee Treatment Act — which removes Supreme Court jurisdiction to hear appeals by Guantanamo detainees based on U.S. statutes or the Constitution, gives lower courts discretion to deny appeal of non-capital cases in which defendants face short prison sentences, and limits appeal to judgments contained in a “final decision” of a military commission — valid as applied to persons who haven’t yet been charged? No answer.
  3. Does the president have inherent power to ignore Congress in cases of “controlling necessity” in, for example, the field of combat? The Court doesn’t clearly answer that question. Says the Court: “Whether Chief Justice Chase was correct in suggesting that the President may constitutionally convene military commissions ‘without the sanction of Congress’ in cases of ‘controlling necessity’ is a question this Court has not answered definitively, and need not answer today.” The Court specifies, in footnote 23, only that the President “may not disregard limitations that Congress has, in proper exercise of its own powers, placed on his powers.” The meaning of that all important qualification — “proper” — remains undetermined.
  4. Can the president establish commissions that depart from ordinary procedure of courts-martial? Yes — if he shows that the ordinary procedures are impractical. The Court holds only that the president hasn’t made such a showing — not that he can’t ever make such a showing. The Court also doesn’t settle when such a showing is substantial enough to deserve deference.
  5. Can civil courts hear claims raising violations of the Geneva Convention? This, too, remains unanswered. The majority, including Justice Kennedy, holds that only the Convention is enforceable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice as part of the “law or war” that governs military commissions. That ruling has no necessary application to civil courts. However, the opinion is quite suggestive. Both the majority and concurrence cite 18 U.S.C. § 2441, which Justice Kennedy stresses makes violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention a war crime punishable as a federal offense, enforceable in federal civil court. The majority holds, of course, that trying pesons under the president’s military commission order violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, suggesting that trial is a war crime within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 2441. Furthermore, the majority stresses that the Geneva Conventions “do extend liability for substantive war crimes to those who ‘orde[r]’ their commission” and “this Court has read the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 to impose ‘command responsibility’ on military commanders for acts of their subordinates.” The Court’s emphasis on the liability that attaches to “orders” is significant, because trials in the military commissions are, of course, pursuant to a direct presidential order. Even so, its difficult to imagine circumstances in which charges under Section 2441 might actually be prosecuted.

[Ed. note: In the original post, the author mistakenly cited 18 U.S.C. § 2241.  The correct citation is 18 U.S.C. § 2441, updated in the text above.]