Rasul v. Bush

PETITIONER:Fawzi Khalid Abdullah Fahad Al Odah, et al.
RESPONDENT:George W. Bush, President of the United States, et al.
LOCATION:Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

DOCKET NO.: 03-334
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 542 US 466 (2004)
GRANTED: Nov 10, 2003
ARGUED: Apr 20, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 28, 2004

John J. Gibbons – argued the cause for Petitioners
Theodore B. Olson – argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

Four British and Australian citizens were captured by the American military in Pakistan or Afghanistan during the United States’ War on Terror. The four men were transported to the American military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When their families learned of the arrests, they filed suit in federal district court seeking a writ of habeas corpus that would declare the detention unconstitutional. They claimed that the government’s decision to deny the men access to attorneys and to hold them indefinitely without access to a court violated the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process clause. The government countered that the federal courts had no jurisdiction to hear the case because the prisoners were not American citizens and were being held in territory over which the United States did not have sovereignty (the Guantanamo Bay base was leased from Cuba indefinitely in 1903, and Cuba retains “ultimate sovereignty”).

The district court agreed with the government, dismissing the case because it found that it did not have jurisdiction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the district court’s decision.


Do United States courts have jurisdiction to consider legal appeals filed on behalf of foreign citizens held by the United States military in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba?

Media for Rasul v. Bush

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 20, 2004 in Rasul v. Bush

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 28, 2004 in Rasul v. Bush

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-334, Rasul v. Bush and a companion case will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

These cases come to us from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

They have raised a narrow but important question, whether the District Court had jurisdiction to entertain challenges to the legality of the detention of aliens at the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba?

The petitioners are two Australians and 12 Kuwaiti citizens who were captured abroad during the military campaign in Afghanistan.

In early 2002, they were transferred to Guantanamo.

They have been held there in military custody ever since.

They alleged that they have neither plotted nor engaged in acts of aggression against the United States, and that they have never been charged with wrongdoing.

The respondents are federal officials who have control over our facilities in Guantanamo.

For over 100 years, the Untied States has occupied the base, which comprises 45 square miles on the Southeast coast of Cuba.

Pursuant to a lease agreement executed with the newly independent Republic of Cuba in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

Under the terms of the lease, Cuba retains “ultimate sovereignty”, but the United States exercises complete jurisdiction and control over the area for as long as it maintains the Naval Base.

The District Court dismissed petitioners’ actions and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

We granted certiorari and now reverse.

Since 1868, the federal habeas corpus statute has provided that the District Courts have power to issue the writ “within their respective jurisdictions”.

In the typical case, both the prisoner and his custodian are located in the judicial district in which the application for the writ is filed.

In such cases, the meaning of the phrase “within their respective jurisdictions” is perfectly obvious.

After World War II however, cases arose in which the prisoners who were outside the district where the custodian was located.

Two of those cases Ahrens against Clark decided in 1948 and Johnson against Eisentrager decided in 1950 are a special relevance to our decision today.

Indeed, Johnson was the precedent on which the Court of Appeals relied in this case.

In Ahrens, a 120 Germans were being held on Ellis Island, New York for deportation to Germany, pursuant to removal orders issued by Attorney General Tom Clark filed an application for the writ in the District of Columbia, naming Clark as the respondent.

This court construed the phrase, “within their respective jurisdictions” to require that the persons being detained must be located within the territorial jurisdiction of the court.

The application was dismissed, because the detainees were in New York rather than the District.

Three Justices dissented arguing that the statute merely required jurisdiction over the custodian.

In Johnson, again over the dissent of three Justices, the Court held that a Federal District Court lacked the authority to issue writs of habeas corpus on behalf of a group of German citizens who had been captured by U.S. forces in China during World War II, and were incarcerated in occupied Germany, after their conviction for war crimes by an American Military Commission.

A quarter of a century later in 1973, in Braden against the 30th District, the Court once again over the dissent of three Justices, overruled Ahrens and rejected the interpretation of the statutory phrase within their respective jurisdictions that had provided the basis for the decisions in Ahrens and Johnson.

Under Braden, the jurisdiction requirement in the statute is satisfied as long as the prisoners’ custodian can be reached by service of process.

It is Braden rather than Johnson that is the most relevant precedent today.

Moreover, petitioners in this case differ from the German detainees in Johnson in important respects.

They are not nationals of countries at war with the United States, nor are they admitted combatants.

They have never been afforded access to any tribunal, much less charged with and convicted of wrongdoing.

John Paul Stevens:

For more than two years they have been imprisoned in an area subject to the exclusive and plenary jurisdiction of the United States.

Respondents, in addition to their misplaced reliance on Johnson, argued that the geographic coverage of the habeas statute should be limited by the presumption against extraterritorial application of federal statutes.

That presumption however is inapplicable, because petitioners are being detained in an area over which the United States does exercise permanent and complete jurisdiction and control.

Moreover, respondents concede that the statute would confer jurisdiction over an application filed by an American citizen held at Guantanamo, and the text of the statute draws no distinction between aliens and citizens.

Accordingly, and over the dissent of three Justices, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas have joined.