Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

PETITIONER: Salim Ahmed Hamdan
RESPONDENT: Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al.
LOCATION: Guantanamo Prison

DOCKET NO.: 05-184
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 548 US 557 (2006)
GRANTED: Nov 07, 2005
ARGUED: Mar 28, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 29, 2006

Neal Kumar Katyal - argued the cause for Petitioner
Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former chauffeur, was captured by Afghan forces and imprisoned by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay. He filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court to challenge his detention. Before the district court ruled on the petition, he received a hearing from a military tribunal, which designated him an enemy combatant.

A few months later, the district court granted Hamdan's habeas petition, ruling that he must first be given a hearing to determine whether he was a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention before he could be tried by a military commission. The Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the decision, however, finding that the Geneva Convention could not be enforced in federal court and that the establishment of military tribunals had been authorized by Congress and was therefore not unconstitutional.


May the rights protected by the Geneva Convention be enforced in federal court through habeas corpus petitions? Was the military commission established to try Hamdan and others for alleged war crimes in the War on Terror authorized by the Congress or the inherent powers of the President?

Media for Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 28, 2006 in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 29, 2006 in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

John Paul Stevens:

I have the disposition to announce in No. 05-184, Hamdan against Rumsfeld.

Petitioner, a foreign national held in custody in an American prison at Guantanamo, has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit, offenses triable by military commission."

He concedes that a court-martial convened in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice or, of course, a civilian court would have jurisdiction to try him; but he contends that the military commission convened by the President lacks such authority, because the charge does not allege a violation of the law of war, and the commission's procedures violate both the UCMJ and the Geneva Conventions.

The District Court granted him relief, the Court of Appeals reversed, and we now reverse the Court of Appeals.

Our judgment is supported by three opinions.

My opinion speaks for the Court on the jurisdictional and certain merits systems; Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in part, primarily addressing the UCMJ and Geneva Convention issues; he is joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer; and Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Kennedy, Souter and Ginsburg, has filed a brief concurring opinion, pointing out that the concerns expressed by our dissenting colleagues merely require the President to seek Congressional authorization for the use of the type of military commission that he has established by Executive Order.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion addressing the jurisdictional issues; Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion addressing the merits; and Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion explaining why he believes that the commission is a regularly constituted court under the Geneva Conventions.

The Chief Justice has taken no part in our consideration or decision of the case.

Our opinions are quite long -- mine has 73 pages -- but I will try to be brief in this summary.

First with respect to jurisdiction, after we granted review in this case, Congress enacted a statute called the Detainee Treatment Act, or DTA.

One section of the DTA addresses the jurisdiction of federal courts to consider claims brought by individuals like Hamdan, who are being detained in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

The first paragraph of that jurisdictional section purports to prevent any federal court from hearing a habeas corpus petition brought by a detainee.

The other two paragraphs of the same section channel review of, "final judgments," issued by combatant status-review tribunals and military commissions to the D.C. Circuit and also defined the scope of that review.

These latter two provisions are expressly made applicable to cases that were pending on the date of enactment of the DTA -- that is, on December 31, 2005 -- but the provision repealing habeas jurisdiction is not.

Shortly after the DTA was enacted, the Government moved to dismiss Hamdan's case on the ground that the new statute deprived us of jurisdiction to consider it.

We delayed consideration of the motion pending argument on the merit, and we now deny the motion.

Congress' failure to provide that the jurisdiction-stripping section of the DTA applies to pending cases stands in stark contrast to its expressed statement that the other jurisdictional provisions included in the same section so apply.

This contrast persuasively indicates that Congress did not intend the jurisdiction-stripping provision to apply to pending cases.

That inference is confirmed by the drafting history of the DTA.

Early versions of the proposed statute would have achieved exactly the result the Government urges here.

They would have expressly made the jurisdiction-stripping provision applicable to pending cases.

Following full debate and further amendments, however, Congress removed that language.

Statements made by Senators during floor debates on the Act, not after the Act was passed, including statements by one of the sponsors of the final bill, uniformly support the view that removal of that language was intended to preserve jurisdiction over pending cases.

The Government also argues that even if we do have jurisdiction, we should abstain from considering Hamdan's claims until the military commission has convicted him of the offense with which he is charged.

For the reasons given by both the Court of Appeals and the District Court, we disagree.

The comity considerations underlying the usual rule of abstention in military cases do no apply, because Hamdan is not a member of our armed forces, and his commission is not part of a Congressionally crafted system of military justice.

In these unique circumstances, which involve a special tribunal created not by Congress, but by the Executive Branch, it is appropriate to consider at this time the jurisdictional and procedural challenges that petitioner has raised.

Turning to the merits of Hamdan's claims, we consider first whether the commission that was convened to try him had been authorized by Congress.

Although we conclude, as we did an Ex parte Quirin, that Article 21 of the UCMJ recognizes the President's power to convene military commissions in some circumstances, we note, as we did in Quirin, that that power is carefully circumscribed.

Article 21 incorporates the common law governing military commissions and conditions the President's power to convene such commissions on compliance with the law of war, which includes international instruments like the Geneva Conventions.