Category Archive 'Johnson v. Eisentrager'

13 Jun 2008

How Did Justice Kennedy Get To His Boumediene Decision?

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In JOHNSON v. EISENTRAGER, 339 U.S. 763 (1950), the Supreme Court ruled:

1. A nonresident enemy alien has no access to our courts in wartime.

2. nonresident enemy aliens, captured and imprisoned abroad, have no right to a writ of habeas corpus in a court of the United States.

3. The Constitution does not confer a right of personal security or an immunity from military trial and punishment upon an alien enemy engaged in the hostile service of a government at war with the United States.


We are here confronted with a decision whose basic premise is that these prisoners are entitled, as a constitutional right, to sue in some court of the United States for a writ of habeas corpus. To support that assumption we must hold that a prisoner of our military authorities is constitutionally entitled to the writ, even though he (a) is an enemy alien; (b) has never been or resided in the United States; (c) was captured outside of our territory and there held in military custody as a prisoner of war; (d) was tried and convicted by a Military Commission sitting outside the United States; (e) for offenses against laws of war committed outside the United States; (f) and is at all times imprisoned outside the United States.

We have pointed out that the privilege of litigation has been extended to aliens, whether friendly or enemy, only because permitting their presence in the country implied [339 U.S. 763, 778] protection. No such basis can be invoked here, for these prisoners at no relevant time were within any territory over which the United States is sovereign, and the scenes of their offense, their capture, their trial and their punishment were all beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any court of the United States. …

To grant the [339 U.S. 763, 779] writ to these prisoners might mean that our army must transport them across the seas for hearing. This would require allocation of shipping space, guarding personnel, billeting and rations. It might also require transportation for whatever witnesses the prisoners desired to call as well as transportation for those necessary to defend legality of the sentence. The writ, since it is held to be a matter of right, would be equally available to enemies during active hostilities as in the present twilight between war and peace. Such trials would hamper the war effort and bring aid and comfort to the enemy. They would diminish the prestige of our commanders, not only with enemies but with wavering neutrals. It would be difficult to devise more effective fettering of a field commander than to allow the very enemies he is ordered to reduce to submission to call him to account in his own civil courts and divert his efforts and attention from the military offensive abroad to the legal defensive at home. Nor is it unlikely that the result of such enemy litigiousness would be a conflict between judicial and military opinion highly comforting to enemies of the United States.

Moreover, we could expect no reciprocity for placing the litigation weapon in unrestrained enemy hands. The right of judicial refuge from military action, which it is proposed to bestow on the enemy, can purchase no equivalent for benefit of our citizen soldiers.

So how does Justice Kennedy arrive at a different conclusion?

at least three factors are relevant in determining the Suspension Clause’s reach: (1) the detainees’ citizenship and status and the adequacy of the process through which that status was determined; (2) the nature of the sites where apprehension and then detention took place; and (3) the practical obstacles inherent in resolving the prisoner’s entitlement to the writ. Application of this framework reveals, first, that petitioners’ status is in dispute: They are not American citizens, but deny they are enemy combatants; and although they have been afforded some process in CSRT proceedings, there has been no Eisentrager–style trial by military commission for violations of the laws of war. Second, while the sites of petitioners’ apprehension and detention weigh against finding they have Suspension Clause rights, there are critical differences between Eisentrager’s German prison, circa 1950, and the Guantanamo Naval Station in 2008, given the Government’s absolute and indefinite control over the naval station. Third, although the Court is sensitive to the financial and administrative costs of holding the Suspension Clause applicable in a case of military detention abroad, these factors are not dispositive because the Government
presents no credible arguments that the military mission at Guantanamo would be compromised if habeas courts had jurisdiction. The situation in Eisentrager was far different, given the historical context and nature of the military’s mission in post-War Germany.

The only readily comprehensible distinctions Justice Kennedy makes are Bush has shilly-shallied around too long. There should have been more timely military trials and the Guantanamo Naval Station is somehow more under “the absolute and definite control” of the US Government than a prison operated by the US Army in Germany in 1950 was, while WWII involved a different historical context and mission, i.e. was the “Good War.”

(1) perhaps has some merit. (2) simply amounts to a rationalization.

Justice Kennedy’s arguments are weak, and they are clearly self-interested. What this is really all about, as in Rasul, is plain Judicial Branch imperialism and overreaching, the refusal to accept limits to jurisdiction or the supremacy of the Executive in time of war.

Justice Kennedy has produced a very irresponsible opinion, which will surely result in the release of some dangerous and fanatical enemies of the United States, very probably leading to further loss of American lives. Members of today’s American intelligentsia, even those sitting on the Supreme Court, are commonly incapable of seeing what was obvious even to the Ancient Romans, who closed the Temple of Janus in time of war to symbolize the fact that inter arma enim silent leges.

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