Friday, June 13, 2008

The travelling writ

An appreciation of the pioneering impact of Boumediene v Bush [2008] USSC No 06-1195 (12 June 2008) can be obtained from the closing remarks of Scalia J (dissenting, joined by Roberts CJ, Thomas and Alito JJ):

“Today the Court warps our Constitution in a way that goes beyond the narrow issue of the reach of the Suspension Clause, invoking judicially brainstormed separation-of-powers principles to establish a manipulable “functional” test for the extraterritorial reach of habeas corpus (and, no doubt, for the extraterritorial reach of other constitutional protections as well). It blatantly misdescribes important precedents, most conspicuously Justice Jackson’s opinion for the Court in Johnson v. Eisentrager. It breaks a chain of precedent as old as the common law that prohibits judicial inquiry into detentions of aliens abroad absent statutory authorization. And, most tragically, it sets our military commanders the impossible task of proving to a civilian court, under whatever standards this Court devises in the future, that evidence supports the confinement of each and every enemy prisoner.

“The Nation will live to regret what the Court has done today. I dissent.”

It is the extension of the privilege of applying for the writ of habeas corpus to aliens abroad that is the central point in the majority decision (Kennedy J, joined by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer JJ). But of more general interest to criminal lawyers are the reasons that the procedural protections that are in place for detainees at Guantanamo Bay fall short of what would be sufficient to displace the need for habeas corpus review.

These shortcomings are:

  • Absence of legal representation
  • A presumption that the Government’s evidence is valid
  • An absence of limits on the use of hearsay evidence deemed relevant and helpful by the tribunal, rendering the opportunity to question Government witnesses more theoretical than real
  • Limitations on a detainee’s ability to rebut the Government’s evidence
  • Inability to cure procedural defects by appeal process

These procedural defects create “a considerable risk of error in the tribunal’s findings of fact” (Kennedy J at p 56), a risk too significant to ignore, especially as the detention is of indefinite duration. Such errors would, in each case, go to the legitimacy of the detention; without an adequate substitute for review by a court on habeas corpus, the statute removing the privilege of the writ was unconstitutional.

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