Saturday, June 14, 2008

Justice Reigns Supreme, But Barely

by the Albany Times Union
June 14, 2008

In affirming the right to a civilian court hearing for detainees at Guantanamo Bay naval base, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy eloquently summed up the issue facing a nation founded in liberty and dedicated to the rule of law. "Liberty and security can be reconciled," he wrote, "and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law."

But that's not what President Bush wanted to hear Thursday. While he grudgingly agreed to abide by the court's 5-4 ruling, he also held out the hope that he could convince Congress to enact legislation that would render it moot. Fortunately, Mr. Bush's days in office grow ever shorter, and the chances of getting Congress to act before he leaves the White House seem remote at best.

In his nearly eight years in office, Mr. Bush has used the war on terror as an excuse to run roughshod over basic liberties. He has defended holding terror suspects in secret prisons abroad, where they face torture, and denigrated the Geneva Conventions. And he has trampled on the rights of American citizens, too, by spying on their e-mails and phone calls without first obtaining a warrant as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The detainees at Guantanamo, while not U.S. citizens protected under the Constitution, are nonetheless being held on U.S. property, some for as long as six years without access to civilian courts. Mr. Bush has declared them enemy combatants, and thus not entitled to civilian courts. Instead, he has argued that the detainees should be tried by military tribunals, where, among other things, they would not be allowed to see evidence against them. Regrettably, Mr. Bush was able to prevail on a weak-kneed Congress to indulge him in this charade.

The administration's argument against granting habeas corpus, had it been upheld, would have given any president the power to deny basic rights to anyone, foreign or citizen, simply by declaring them enemies of the state. In effect, a president would have dictatorial powers.

The majority ruling rightly rejected military tribunals as inadequate to uphold the rights of the accused. That will deny the White House the chance to have the detainees tried in secret. Instead, it must persuade an open civilian court that the charges against the detainees are warranted and that continued confinement is justified.

Regrettably, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the four dissenters, chose the low road in his attempt to rebut the majority ruling by claiming it will "almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."

No. The Americans who are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan are placing their lives on the line to defend the high ideals this country stands for. On Thursday, five Supreme Court justices upheld those ideals with honor.

Copyright 2008 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

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