WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday dodged a dispute over the government's plans to conduct military trials for Usama bin Laden's (search) former driver and other foreign terror suspects, avoiding another clash over the president's powers.
Justices were asked to decide if the Bush administration is trying to shortcut the rights of non-Americans facing trials at the Guantanamo Bay (search) Navy base in Cuba. They declined, without comment.
The court's intervention would have been unusual because an appeals court also is considering the issue and has scheduled arguments March 8. Lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan (search) — a Yemeni charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, murder and terrorism — tried to speed things up by bypassing that court and filing the Supreme Court appeal.
The Supreme Court dealt with several terrorism cases last year, and in a landmark decision held that the war on terror did not give the White House a "blank check" to detain people without legal rights.
About 550 detainees from 40 countries are being held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. So far only four detainees, including Hamdan, have been charged. The Bush administration had been accused by civil rights groups of doing too little to ensure the planned trials are fair.
At issue in the latest case was the government's strategy in holding special military trials, in which defendants do not have the same rights as those in regular courts.
A federal court judge had blocked the first trial and told the government to redo the plans to ensure defendants have more rights.
Neal Katyal, one of Hamdan's attorneys, said the case is not just about the hundreds of people in Cuba who could face trials.
"This case will affect the well-being of Americans and other individuals from around the world who have been or may be captured in armed conflicts," Katyal wrote in a court filing.
Bush administration lawyer Paul Clement, meanwhile, warned that the court could be prematurely making determinations "affecting the exercise of the president's core commander in chief and foreign affairs authority."
"The concern for interference with military exigencies is only heightened here, where the military proceedings involve enforcement of the law of war in the midst of an ongoing armed conflict against an enemy force that is targeting civilians for mass death," Clement, the acting solicitor general, wrote in a filing.
Human rights groups and hundreds of members of the British and European parliaments encouraged the court to make a special exception to hear the appeal even though the case is still pending in a lower court.
Claude Stansbury, the attorney for the parliament members, said that the world is watching to see how the U.S. government and courts handle prosecutions. He said Hamdan's right to a speedy trial is in question after more than three years in prison, including prolonged solitary confinement.
The government told the Supreme Court justices that Hamdan was bin Laden's personal driver and bodyguard, that he received terrorist training at an Al Qaeda (search) training camp in Afghanistan and that he delivered weapons to Al Qaeda members.
Hamdan's trial was approaching when U.S. District Judge James Robertson stepped in last November to block it.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear Hamdan's case now, and justices could have another chance later this year to review the case.
The case is Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 04-702.