Defenders of the Bill of Rights greeted two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court June 28 sharply rebuffing George W. Bush’s claim of sweeping powers to detain U.S. citizens and foreigners indefinitely, without criminal charges, in his so-called “war on terror.”

“A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She was joined by seven of her colleagues in upholding the habeas corpus right of citizens branded by Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft as “enemy combatants.” The detainees have been held in secret without criminal charges for as long as two years at military stockades in the U.S.

Bush had argued that as “unlawful combatants” these detainees have no legal rights under either the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. Hundreds, if not thousands, of non-citizen detainees have been held at secret U.S. military bases around the world and the high court upheld their habeas corpus rights, as well, i.e., their rights to judicial review of the legality of their detentions.

With only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the court ruled that the administration improperly denied Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, due process in holding him for two years without criminal charges or right of legal counsel. He is entitled to a “notice of the factual basis for his classification” and a “fair opportunity to rebut the government’s assertions before a neutral decision-maker,” O’Connor ruled.

Neither she nor any of the other justices referred to the horrific photos of U.S. military police torturing naked Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons that started leaking out April 28, two days after the court agreed to hear the appeals of the detainees. But those atrocities clearly weighed heavily in their decisions.

In a second 6-3 ruling, the court held that the 660 detainees at the Guantanamo Detention Center, where many of these torture methods were refined, are also entitled to a judicial hearing in U.S. courts. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which filed the lawsuit on behalf of 14 of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, hailed the victory and announced they will seek hearings to win freedom for their clients or even a class action lawsuit to free all the Guantanamo detainees.

CCR recently filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit against two private contractors, Titan and CACI International, for their role in the torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said, “The Bush administration’s assertion that the president can hold suspects incommunicado indefinitely and without charge is as arrogant as its legal arguments that the president can authorize torture. No president is above the law or the Constitution.”

Leahy praised the high court for rejecting administration pleas to “just trust us” adding, “While the court regrettably sidestepped the urgent issues raised by the Padilla case, the Hamdi and Rasul decisions do reaffirm the judiciary’s role as a check and a balance … on power grabs” by the White House.

He was referring to Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held without criminal charges. The U.S. District Court for New York found his detention unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court used a technicality to avoid a ruling on his detention.

Leahy was sharply critical of the Republican-dominated Senate and House for behaving as a “wholly-owned subsidiary” of the Bush White House in refusing oversight of the Bush-Cheney abuses of power.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said, “No longer can the Bush White House conduct its war on the Constitution in secret. … Even the president cannot use the state of war and the threat of terrorism to strip away a defendant’s right to be heard in court.”

C. William Michaels, author of “No Greater Threat,” a critique of the USA Patriot Act, told the World the decisions could be a harbinger of more civil liberties victories even though they are not directly related to the repressive Patriot Act. “These decisions made no mention of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, but we may be looking at a refreshing trend of increased judicial scrutiny of the Bush administration,’” he said.

The Bush administration, he added, delivered hardline arguments that the courts have no authority “to even accept a petition for review of the Guantanamo detainees. That case could very well have been decided in the administration’s favor. For the Supreme Court to come to the opposite conclusion is an essential declaration of the role of the federal courts in checking and reviewing executive branch power.”

Former Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), now the president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the rulings are “a great victory in protecting our core values as Americans … in upholding due process rights.”

Elliott Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, said, “The administration’s breathtaking assertion of power over constitutional rights has finally been stopped. Recent revelations about this administration’s detention practices underscore the importance of subjecting their policies to the effective scrutiny of the courts.”

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