Hamdan v. Rumsfeld
548 U.S. 557 (2006)

  • Hamdan, a citizen of Yemen, worked for Osama bin Laden. He was captured in Afghanistan and sent to a prison in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
    • The US charged Hamdan with conspiracy to commit terrorism, and made arrangements to try him before a military commission authorized under an Executive Order (Military Commission Order No. 1).
    • The military commission was an ad hoc court created by the Executive Branch to try enemy combatants.
  • Hamdan filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to be tried in a civilian court.
    • Hamdan argued that the military commission convened to try him was illegal and lacked the protections required under the Geneva Conventions and United States Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
    • Hamdi argued that there is nothing in the Constitution that could be construed to say that the Executive Branch has the power to create courts.
      • Only Congress can create courts (see Article III Section 1).
    • The government argued that the President has plenary power to set up these military commissions without requiring Congress’ authority.
      • This seems to be against Article III Section 1 of the Constitution.
    • The government also argued that even if you didn’t buy the first argument, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, (AUMF) gave the President the Statutory authority to create the military commissions.
  • The Trial Court ruled for Hamdan. The government appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the US could not hold a military commission unless it was first shown that the detainee was a prisoner of war.
  • The Appellate Court reversed the decision of the Trial Court. Hamdan appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that military commissions are legitimate forums to try enemy combatants because they have been approved by Congress.
    • The Court found that the Geneva Convention is a treaty between nations and as such it does not confer individual rights and remedies.
      • Basically that means that if the US violated the treaty, then Yemen could make a claim that the US broke the treaty, but it didn’t give Hamdan the right to make a personal claim.
    • The Court found that under the terms of the Geneva Convention, al-Qa’ida and its members are not covered, because it only applies to nations, not to non-state actors.
    • The Court found that even if the Geneva Convention could be enforced in US Courts, it only guarantees only a certain standard of judicial procedure (a “competent tribunal”) without speaking to the jurisdiction in which the prisoner must be tried.
    • The Court found that the President has the constitutional authority to try Hamdan because Congress authorized such activity by Statute.
    • The Court found that the Judicial Branch does not have the authority to enforce a treaty (even though the Constitution explicitly states that Treaties are to be enforced.)
  • The government tried to block the appeal, but the US Supreme Court decided to hear the case anyway
    • Section 1005 of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), gave the DC Circuit Court of Appeals exclusive jurisdiction to review decisions of cases being tried before military commissions,
    • It was argued that Section 1005 did not explicitly bar the US Supreme Court from hearing the case, so it was ok.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the President did not have authority to set up the war crimes tribunals.
    • The Court found that the special military commissions were illegal under both UCMJ and the Geneva Conventions because in those trials:
      • The defendant and the defendant’s attorney may be forbidden to view certain evidence used against the defendant; the defendant’s attorney may be forbidden to discuss certain evidence with the defendant;
      • Evidence judged to have any probative value may be admitted, including hearsay, unsworn live testimony, and statements gathered through torture; and
      • Appeals are not heard by Courts, but only within the Executive Branch.
    • The Court found that the Geneva Conventions do apply because Article 3 of the Convention affords minimal protection to combatants in the territory of a signatory (and Afghanistan is a signatory).
      • Those minimal protections include being tried by a regularly constituted court, which the military commission is not.
    • The Court mentioned that there are three situations where Military Commissions can be used:
      • When the country is under martial law.
      • When the court is being held in enemy territory during a war.
      • When there is an alleged violation of the Laws of War.
        • Hamdan was charged with conspiracy, which is not traditionally considered to be a violation of the Laws of War.
    • The Court did not decide whether the President possessed the Constitutional power to convene military commissions like the one created to try Hamdan.
      • The Court noted that even if the President possessed such power, those tribunals would either have to be sanctioned by the “laws of war,” as codified by Congress in Article 21 of the UCMJ, or authorized by Statute. As to the statutory authorization, there is nothing in the AUMF “even hinting” at expanding the President’s war powers beyond those enumerated in Article 21.
  • The dissents generally agreed with the Appellate Court’s arguments, as well as a general feeling that, during wartime, everybody had a duty to get out of the President’s way and defer to his decisions.
    • They also felt that the US Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction over this case due to Section 1005 of the DTA.
  • Basically, this ruling states that if you are going to try someone, you have to follow international standards for a trial, you have to try them in an appropriate court, and you have to give them legal protections. You can’t just make up a new judicial system with rules that are inordinately favorable to the US government.
  • This case did not decide any Constitutional Law questions. It was simply a case of deciding if applicable Treaties and Statutes apply.
    • E.g. what does the UCMJ require? What do the Geneva Conventions require?
    • The US Supreme Court said that contrary to the administration’s claim, the President is still subject to the laws made by Congress.
    • The US Supreme Court said that the Geneva Conventions apply in all cases.