Some Reactions to the Supreme Court’s Ruling About Habeas Corpus and Guantanamo

Today George Will slams John McCain for his “extravagant condemnation” of last weeks ruling concerning habeas corpus and Guantanamo.

Here’s an excerpt:

The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” Well….

The purpose of a writ of habeas corpus is to cause a government to release a prisoner or show through due process why the prisoner should be held. Of Guantanamo’s approximately 270 detainees, many certainly are dangerous “enemy combatants.” Some probably are not. None will be released by the court’s decision, which does not even guarantee a right to a hearing. Rather, it guarantees only a right to request a hearing. Courts retain considerable discretion regarding such requests.

McCain, co-author of the McCain-Feingold law that abridges the right of free political speech, has referred disparagingly to, as he puts it, “quote ‘First Amendment rights.’ ” Now he dismissively speaks of “so-called, quote ‘habeas corpus suits.’ ” He who wants to reassure constitutionalist conservatives that he understands the importance of limited government should be reminded why the habeas right has long been known as “the great writ of liberty.”

No state power is more fearsome than the power to imprison. Hence the habeas right has been at the heart of the centuries-long struggle to constrain governments, a struggle in which the greatest event was the writing of America’s Constitution, which limits Congress’s power to revoke habeas corpus to periods of rebellion or invasion. Is it, as McCain suggests, indefensible to conclude that Congress exceeded its authority when, with the Military Commissions Act (2006), it withdrew any federal court jurisdiction over the detainees’ habeas claims?

As the conservative and libertarian Cato Institute argued in its amicus brief in support of the petitioning detainees, habeas, in the context of U.S. constitutional law, “is a separation of powers principle” involving the judicial and executive branches. The latter cannot be the only judge of its own judgment.

In Marbury v. Madison (1803), which launched and validated judicial supervision of America’s democratic government, Chief Justice John Marshall asked: “To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?” Those are pertinent questions for McCain, who aspires to take the presidential oath to defend the Constitution.

Read the whole thing. The Cato legal brief quoted can be found here.

Steve Chapman’s latest column is also about the Supreme Court ruling. Here’s an excerpt:

The administration asserted that in time of war, even an unconventional war against a shadowy foe, the executive branch has the power to capture a foreigner abroad and hold him for the rest of his life, without any independent review by the courts.

Short of claiming the right to do that to an American citizen arrested on U.S. soil—a claim the administration had also made, only to see it repudiated by the courts—that’s about as vast and dangerous a power as you could find. So it is not surprising that the Supreme Court balked.

The justices insisted that the constitutional guarantee of habeas corpus, which lets prisoners challenge their confinement, must be respected. Except when Congress formally suspends that right, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, it assures that “the judiciary will have a time-tested device … to maintain the ‘delicate balance of governance’ that is itself the surest safeguard of liberty.”

Good stuff. The full article is here.

Update: Steve Chapman has a follow up article here.