Can a US court declare that a group of human beings have no rights and can be enslaved or abused at will with no legal recourse? That question will soon be coming before the Supreme Court.
In the last days of 2006, the GOP-led Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which among other things stripped the right of habeas corpus from the captives held at Guantánamo. In late February the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld that part of the law. Now both the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the captives, and the Solicitor General’s Office have asked the Court for expedited review at its next conference on March 30.
Before they make a final decision, the Justices should consider the cases of two of the Court’s most famous imprisoned petitioners: the freed slave Dred Scott and the captive voyagers on the slave ship Amistad.
The Dred Scott decision is often regarded as the most shameful in the history of the Supreme Court. Scott was held as a slave even though his late owner had promised to free him at his own death. Scott’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus was granted and upheld by the lower courts. But it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1857 on the grounds that a Negro has “no rights which the white man was bound to respect…. They are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”
A century and a half later, in Boumediene v. Bush and Al-Odah v. United States, the DC Court of Appeals has similarly overturned writs of habeas corpus granted by lower courts on the grounds that this fundamental right can be denied to a specified group of human beings. The court ruled that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 strips Guantánamo detainees of the right to challenge their detention in US federal courts. Hina Shamsi, deputy director of Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, explains it this way: “The Court of Appeal’s ruling runs counter to one of the most important checks on unbridled executive power enshrined in the US Constitution: the right to challenge imprisonment in a full and fair proceeding. If allowed to stand, this ruling would permit the government to hold prisoners, potentially indefinitely, without having to show to a court of law why the person has been detained.”