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Court: Detainees Can't Challenge Detentions

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A federal appeals court here in Washington issued a major ruling this morning. It closes the courthouse doors to all the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and it upholds a major new law called the Military Commissions Act.

NPR justice reporter Ari Shapiro has been covering this story and joined us now. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the ruling say?

SHAPIRO: There are basically two parts of it. The first part says that Congress intended to throw out all of the pending cases from Guantanamo Bay.

INSKEEP: These are detainees who said I want to challenge - I want to see the evidence against me.

SHAPIRO: There are 160 of them and it's all kinds of different claims from, you know, I'm innocent, outright, to I was denied medical treatment, to I was tortured. Lots of different claims that have all been in various stages of working their way to the system - are all consolidated in this case.

The Military Commissions Act, this law that Congress passed last summer, threw out those cases. And now, the Federal Appeals Court in Washington has said, yes, A. Congress intended to throw the pending and cases; and B. It's constitutional. The Military Commissions Act passes constitutional muster.

And it was a pretty pointed ruling, I must say. Judge Raymond Randolph wrote the majority opinion and he called the detainees' arguments creative but not cogent. And said to accept them would be to defy the will of Congress.

INSKEEP: Well now, this is interesting because last year in this program, we're talking to a lawyer for one of the detainees - for some of the detainees - who said, look we've got these appeals and even though the law has been passed, we filed our court challenges before the law was passed. The law can't be retroactive and we should be able to finish the case. I case the justice system find that compelling.

SHAPIRO: They did not. I actually just spoke with the same guy a few minutes ago, Bill Goodman, who's a legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. He's understandably disappointed by this morning's ruling. He said it will go to the Supreme Court. But he thinks that the law, as written - the Military Commissions Act - was just flat out unconstitutional. That the Congress had no right to throw these court cases out and shut the courthouse doors to all of these detainees.

INSKEEP: Is it surprising at all that a court would say, we have no power here and we, you know, we agree with the - being shut out of power on this question.

SHAPIRO: Well, two judges said that, one judge said the opposite. Judge Judith Rogers said Congress may have intended to shut the court out but they can't do that. It's basically unconstitutional. And her dissent was just about as pointed as the majority opinion. She said the only way that her two colleagues could reach the conclusion they did was quote, "by misreading the historical record and ignoring the Supreme Court."

INSKEEP: Hmm. And, of course, the Supreme Court will get to weigh in on this as we go along. Now let's just figure out what this means for a detainee who is at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. What are the rules now, under this new law, for them to challenge their detention - if any? Where is evidence against them heard and who makes the decision?

SHAPIRO: They get an initial proceeding that's referred to as a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, that's intended to determine whether or not they're enemy combatants. If they don't like the outcome of that, they can challenge the nature of the tribunal in the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court, but that's pretty much it. If they think they're not getting treated well, if they say their innocent. All of these other things that has been working through the courts in the current cases decided today, those are off the table.

INSKEEP: So the 160 people who say that they're being unjustly held or have been mistreated, who now makes the decision as to how long they will stay at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and what happens to them there?

SHAPIRO: At the end of the day, it's really the Bush administration in combination with the Combatant Status Review Tribunals that the Bush administration set up with now Congress's input in the Military Commissions Act. And what's interesting about this is that Congress only passed the Military Commissions Act after the Supreme Court said the Bush administration's initial plan for detaining and trying enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, or terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, was unconstitutional.

So the Military Commissions Act came about after the Supreme Court ruled on that first set up of procedures. Now the Supreme Court looks like sooner or later, it's going to have to rule on this new set of procedures, as well.

INSKEEP: All right, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's justice reporter Ari Shapiro. And again a federal appeals court here in Washington D.C. has upheld a major provision of the Military Commissions Act covering the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.