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Supreme Court Takes Key Step

Chen Zhao

This past Monday, the United States Supreme Court rightfully decided to take up two appeals cases involving terrorist suspects who had been secretly taken custody after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the past two years that have followed September 11, 2001, the Bush administration, in the name of national security, has changed numerous areas of civil rights including those that have to do with the right to counsel and the right for prisoners to challenge their confinement. Much of this has been done without the public’s awareness, and, it has seemed, without the attention of the Supreme Court. This especially seemed to be the case after the Court decided earlier this year not to add to its docket a similar case that involved Guantanamo Bay detainees and not to hear a case that challenged government surveillance powers that were increased with the passage of the infamous Patriot Act.

In the war against the Taliban, the government captured hundreds of men on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The administration is currently holding about 660 men from 40 countries in Guantanamo Bay, interrogating them while deciding whether they should face a military tribunal or be sent back to their home countries. Many of these men have been held for as long as two years without any access to lawyers or family members, and often without even being given a reason for their imprisonment. The Bush administration contends that it can hold any person, even an American citizen, captive indefinitely -- yes, indefinitely -- as long as he or she is labeled as an “enemy combatant.” Needless to say, this is an outrageous and egregious breach of the civil rights that the Constitution guarantees to us all.

The lower courts have sided with the administration, however, and have cited a 53-year-old case as precedent for denying the detainees the right to have their cases heard in U.S. courts. The administration and the lower courts have insisted that Cuba has jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay, not the U.S.

Now that enough time has passed for the “September 11th cases” to work their way through the judicial system, the Supreme Court, by choosing to add two such cases to its docket, is fulfilling its duty to the American public. We should applaud the Court for taking this important step in protecting our civil rights.

The next step, naturally, should be for the Court to make a crucial stand for our civil rights by ruling in favor of the men being held at the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay. In the two cases being heard by the Court, Rasul v. Bush and Odah v. U.S., the issue at hand is whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay, since the land is actually owned by Cuba and is only being leased by the United States. However, there is a larger, more important issue that is being decided and that is whether the government should be allowed to diminish our civil rights in wartime.

It has often been the case that in times of war, civil rights take a backseat to our national interests. After all, President Abraham Lincoln temporarily suspended the writ of habeus corpus during the Civil War, and the Supreme Court upheld the internment of the Japanese during World War II in the landmark case Korematsu v. U.S. Bush used the same logic of national security to justify increased government intrusion on our privacy and decreased rights for detained suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks. However, I must note that, in light of what we know today, we cannot help but to regret the actions of the government in detaining Japanese-Americans during World War II. The Court must act now so that the measures taken by the Bush administration after Sept. 11 are not similarly regretted by later generations.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist has made it abundantly clear that he believes that civil rights should be reduced in wartime. However, the founders of this country wrote the Constitution to protect our civil liberties, in times of peace as well as in times of war. As Justice Stephen Breyer said, “The Constitution always matters, perhaps particularly so in times of emergency.”

The Bush administration is hoping that the world will simply forget the hundreds of helpless men that are being held unconstitutionally in Cuba. After all, most of them are not American citizens. However, we cannot forget them. If the government can just completely take away their rights without any impediments, how do we know that the same government will not do the same thing to us?

The Supreme Court has moved in the right direction by ending its silence on these important matters and allowing the appeal cases to be heard. Now, it has an obligation to step in and assert that the Guantanamo Bay detainees, whether they are terrorists or not, have the same rights as everyone else, and that though we may be in the midst of a war -- or two -- the Constitution is still the supreme law of the land. Its words and principles cannot and should not be casually tossed aside.

Chen Zhao is a member of the class of 2007.