Last week, in a two-to-one decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that courts may oversee conditions at Guantanamo as part of a habeas corpus lawsuit. The ruling overturned two lower court decisions that judges could not oversee these types of matters. However, the Court refused to grant the prisoners’ request for an injunction blocking the government from force-feeding them and further ruled that inmates on a hunger strike could be force-fed.
Petitioners, who had already sought and were denied release via a writ of habeas corpus, moved in those habeas actions for a preliminary injunction preventing the government from force-feeding them. Two separate district judges had already denied their requests, because they concluded that the Military Commissions Act (MCA), passed by Congress in 2006, stripped federal courts of jurisdiction to consider such challenges brought by Guantanamo detainees. The detainees appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
What is habeas corpus?
Habeas Corpus is a Latin term, which requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court. A writ of habeas corpus is a summons that has the force of a court order, which is addressed to the custodian (usually a prison official). The writ demands that a prisoner be taken before a court, and that the custodian present proof of authority. This allows courts to determine whether the custodian has lawful authority to detain the prisoner. This is important because the first issue the D.C. Circuit Court decided turned on whether the claims the prisoners were bringing were habeas actions.
How does habeas corpus operate in relation to inmates at Guantanamo?
In 2004, in a case known as Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court held that the District Court had jurisdiction to hear claims of Guantanamo detainees. It explained that the federal habeas corpus statute extended to those detained at Guantanamo, which, for the purposes of this statute, was “within ‘the territorial jurisdiction’ of the United States.” The Court further concluded that the detainees were entitled to “the privilege of litigation in U.S. courts.”
Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), which contained a provision designed to work around Rasul v. Bush and strip federal courts of jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees’ claims. However, in a case known as Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court held that this provision could not apply retroactively to cases pending at the time the DTA was enacted. Congress responded by passing the MCA – Military Commissions Act (the law at issue in his case).
Passage of the MCA required the Supreme Court to confront the constitutional question it had previously avoided: May Congress eliminate federal habeas jurisdiction for prisoners at Guantanamo without complying with the requirements of the Suspension Clause?
The Suspensions Clause is a provision in Article One, Section 9 of the Constitution, which demands that “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”
In 2008, Boumediene v. Bush, the Court answered this question and further held that the substitute procedures Congress had developed for Guantanamo detainees – review by a military tribunal (and others) – were “an inadequate substitutes for habeas corpus.” The Supreme Court further held that section 7 of the MCA which barred detainees from seeking habeas corpus review was an unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. However, the Court upheld other provisions of the law which barred certain claims that were not considered to fall under habeas corpus review. Therefore, if a case was a habeas action it could be reviewed by a regular court, but if it was not, it could only be reviewed by a military tribunal.
So, in this case, the question the D.C. Circuit needed to decide was whether this case was in fact a habeas action. If it was, they would have jurisdiction. If it wasn’t, they would not. The reason they needed to answer this question was because two previous courts had held that it was not a habeas action and therefore they had no jurisdiction to hear it. However, as I mentioned above, the D.C. circuit disagreed, and held that since it was in fact a habeas action, they could hear the claims.
Once the court determined they could hear the case, they went on to decide the substantive issue, whether they would grant the prisoners’ request for an injunction that would bar the government from force feeding them by strapping them into a restraint chair, inserting a gastric tube through their noses and pouring a liquid nutritional supplement into their stomachs. The court rejected this request and held that, “absent exceptional circumstances prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death.”
Therefore, although the Court concluded that they had the jurisdiction to review prison practices – in this case force-feeding – they would only grant injunctive if the practice was not, “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. The Court concluded that because the government had identified two penological interests at stake – preserving the lives of those in its custody and maintaining security and discipline in the detention facility – injunctive relief was not appropriate. The Court went on to state that, “Petitioners point to nothing specific to their situation that would give us a basis for concluding that the government’s legitimate penological interests cannot justify the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees at Guantánamo.”
DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. The law changes frequently and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Being general in nature, the information and materials provided may not apply to any specific factual and/or legal set of circumstances. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied.