WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday declined for now to review whether Guantanamo Bay detainees may go to federal court to challenge their indefinite confinement.
Several justices made clear they will be sympathetic to further requests from the detainees.
Some of the roughly 385 prisoners have been held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba for more than five years.
None has yet had a hearing in a civilian court challenging his detention, even though two earlier Supreme Court rulings extended legal protection to them.
At issue is whether those at Guantanamo have a right to habeas corpus review, a tenet of the Constitution that protects people from unlawful imprisonment.
In February, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a key provision of a law the Bush administration pushed through Congress last year stripping federal courts of their ability to hear such challenges.
Three justices said they wanted to intervene immediately in the matter and two other justices said they might vote to do so later. It takes four votes among the nine justices to accept a case.
"Despite the obvious importance" of the cases, it would be premature to intervene, Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy wrote. If the detainees' legal position is ultimately upheld, hearing their cases now might have avoided an additional year or more of imprisonment, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting from the decision not to revisit the issue. He was joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Breyer and Souter said they would have heard the case on a fast track, as the detainees requested. "This is a perfect example of justice delayed is justice denied," said Washington lawyer Tom Wilner, who has represented Guantanamo detainees since May 2002. "All these people ever wanted was a fair hearing." Wilner represents a group of 39 detainees who had asked the court to take the case. The same appeals court that ruled in February against the detainees will now review the work of military panels that have found each of the detainees to be an enemy combatant. To date, a few detainees have filed applications with the appeals court, says the Justice Department. A small number of detainees still must undergo the military reviews. The Supreme Court is likely to be faced with the same cases it rejected Monday once the appeals court begins conducting reviews. "I think that, on first glance, we're very pleased with the decision," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. The Bush administration argues that because of the military reviews and the appeals court proceedings, there is no need for the justices to hurry. At the Pentagon, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon said Guantanamo is reserved for "the most egregious terror suspects." However, only 10 have been charged with a crime. "Congress cannot sit back and wait for the courts to fix this problem," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. He urged passage of legislation he introduced with the panel's ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, to restore detainee access to the courts. "We're disappointed and for us this is a delay that is unconscionable," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has led the fight to gain court access for the detainees. Ratner said that in enacting the Detainee Treatment Act, Congress "rips out the heart" of court access "and now the court says â€˜let's wait.' That's another year of delay." Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., called the court's refusal to hear the case "misguided" and said it highlights the urgency for congressional action. He said basic rights must be restored to the detainees and the Geneva Conventions must be adhered to. Former military officers, diplomats and federal judges joined the detainees in urging the court to take prompt action. The court "held in no uncertain terms that the Guantanamo detainees were entitled to habeas corpus review to challenge the lawfulness of their detention," they said in their supporting brief. "But since that decision in June 2004, the court's mandate has been frustrated and not a single detainee has had a habeas hearing in federal court." Bipartisan proposals already have been introduced in the Democratic-led Congress to rewrite the 2006 law that swept away the detainees' access to U.S. courts. It was enacted by the then-GOP majority at the request of the White House. The cases are Al Odah v. USA, 06-1196, and Boumediene v. Bush, 06-1195. --- On the Net: Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov AP-CS-04-02-07 1858EDT
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