WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear the case of a U.S.-born man captured during fighting in Afghanistan and held without charges, the latest setback for the Bush administration and its assertion of broad new powers to prosecute the war on terrorism.
Over the administration's objections, the court said it will consider the treatment of Yaser Esam Hamdi (search), a suspected Taliban (search) foot soldier held at a U.S. naval brig in South Carolina. The government calls Hamdi an "enemy combatant" and says he is ineligible for ordinary legal protections.
The administration says it is reluctant to allow enemy combatants access to lawyers because that could greatly inhibit efforts to obtain information from them about potential terrorist operations.
Unlike almost all the others picked up overseas since the Sept. 11 attacks, Hamdi is an American citizen. He was born to Saudi parents living in Louisiana but was raised in Saudi Arabia.
Other terrorism cases are still at or near the high court's doorstep, including the case of another U.S.-born terror suspect held indefinitely without access to lawyers. Jose Padilla (search), a former gang member and convert to Islam, was picked up in Chicago in 2002 and detained in connection with an alleged plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb."
The Supreme Court could choose to consider the two cases together, simultaneously addressing the rights of U.S. citizens captured abroad as well as those picked up in the United States.
The cases raise basic legal and constitutional questions about the breadth of executive power and the rights of terror suspects to defend themselves in court.
"The court has really drawn a line in the sand," said Deborah Pearlstein, a lawyer and national security specialist at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (search), which has been a frequent Bush administration critic. "It is recognizing that, yes, the executive has some wartime powers, but they are not unlimited."
"The Justice Department will vigorously defend the president's authority to capture and detain enemy combatants," department spokeswoman Monica Goodling said Friday. "This authority is crucial in times of war," whether applied to those caught overseas or at home, she said.
The court will probably consider Hamdi's case in April, with a ruling expected by July.
The court separately has agreed to consider the legal rights of other battlefield prisoners held as enemy combatants at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The court could say as soon as Monday whether it will hear an appeal over government secrecy in the detention of hundreds of foreigners picked up in the United States and held immediately after Sept. 11. Civil liberties organizations are seeking names and other details about the detainees, mostly Muslim and Arab men who have since been deported for civil immigration violations.
Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, and taken to Guantanamo. He was transferred to the naval brig in South Carolina after authorities verified his citizenship.
The Bush administration has maintained that it alone has the power to designate someone an enemy combatant — and that the label means a detainee can be held in open-ended military custody without access to courts, lawyers and sometimes family or other outsiders.
Such detentions serve national security ends, and are not subject to the usual rules of the criminal court system, such as private meetings between suspects and lawyers and the right to a speedy trial, the administration has said.
"Hamdi is a classic battlefield detainee — captured in Afghanistan, an area of active combat, with an enemy unit," Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court in urging it to stay out of the case.
A lower federal court had sided with the government in Hamdi's case, and the administration wanted that ruling to stand. Another lower federal court ruled against the government in the Padilla case.
The government contends that Hamdi is not constitutionally entitled to a lawyer, but recently said it will allow lawyer Frank Dunham to visit him anyway. The meeting has not taken place and the issue remains a part of the Supreme Court case.
"The guy basically had his day in court and he wasn't there," Dunham said Friday. "Now we're seeking review of that denial of a day in court. If I saw him now it wouldn't change anything."
The case is Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 03-6696.