Written with Lee A. Casey, fellow Washington D.C. based attorney who also served in the Department of Justice during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations
Earlier this year, a Washington D.C.-based federal court extended the constitutional right to habeas corpus to three foreign nationals detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The case, Maqaleh v. Gates, represents yet another step in the federal judiciary’s transformation from Alexander Hamilton’s “least dangerous branch” into a fully active policy maker.
Historically, the constitutional right to habeas corpus — an ancient process permitting prisoners to challenge the legality of their confinement — was available only to individuals present in the U.S., or to American citizens held by federal authorities overseas. In a leading World War II case, Johnson v. Eisentrager (1950), the high court decided, with “bright line rules,” that habeas corpus is unavailable to foreign citizens held outside the U.S.
But last year, the high court reversed itself in Boumediene v. Bush. The court held, by a 5-4 vote, that foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also have a right to habeas corpus. Articulating a new, multifactor test for determining who can receive habeas corpus overseas, the court left open the possibility that aliens detained at any U.S. controlled foreign facility could sue the government for their release.
In Maqaleh the court concluded that three detainees, held at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, but actually captured in other countries, have habeas corpus rights under the U.S. Constitution. It reasoned that permitting the president to move captured enemies from one location to another without judicial review would simply give the executive too much power.
What really is at stake is whether the president’s actions overseas — especially in military operations — are to be subject to judicial supervision. In this light, the courts have never been so bold. Although the Maqaleh court denied it, the premise of its decision is that the Constitution permits judicial involvement in all U.S. actions abroad. While this particular ruling involves habeas rights in Afghanistan, there is in fact no principled limitation on the court’s reasoning. The real test in any particular case is whether a federal judge believes the president is operating with insufficient constraints on his authority.
This new state of play has already affected U.S. military operations. American special forces, have now limited their activities in the Afghan-Pakistan border region — where al Qaeda and the Taliban are now most active — to avoid claims by enemy fighters that they were captured outside of Afghanistan, in Pakistan. If those enemy fighters were captured outside of Afghanistan, then according to the Maqaleh decision, they are eligible for habeas relief. This provides a strategic sanctuary for Pakistan-based enemy operatives, who are now effectively immune from U.S. ground attacks.
This is obviously not the first time the courts have overstepped their proper constitutional bounds, seeking a political role for themselves. Notorious examples include the Supreme Court’s efforts to preserve slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) and its determination to oppose federal economic regulation during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In each case, the judges have eventually been strong-armed back, through the force of the public opinion and political pressures, to a more appropriate role.
The sooner this process begins, the better. A good first step would be some questions for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor by the Senate. Senate members should determine her views on the proper role of judges in reviewing U.S. military operations overseas.
Justice Robert Jackson, writing in the Eisentrager case, explained why foreign enemies should not have access to American courts. “It would be difficult to devise more effective fettering of a field commander than to allow the very enemies he is ordered to reduce to submission to call him to account in his own civil courts and divert his efforts and attention from the military offensive abroad to the legal defensive at home.” The question is: Does Ms. Sotomayor agree?