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Rasul v Bush – Case Analysis of a Landmark US Supreme Court Decision

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Rasul v Bush 542 U.S. 466 (2004) is a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. In this case, the US Supreme Court decided that the detained foreign nationals who were held in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp are allowed to file a petition of writ of habeas corpus before the Federal Court to review the legality of their detention.

Facts of Rasul v Bush

The President sent the armed forces to Afghanistan in order to wage the military campaign against Al Qaeda and also Taliban regime, in pursuance of Congress’s joint resolution which authorized the use of the force against nations or persons that planned, participated, supported or aided on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists attack.

During these hostilities, Petitioner, 2 Australians and 12 Kuwaitis were captured and being held in military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Naval Base. This place is occupied by the United States of America as a part of a lease (1903 Lease agreement extended by 1934 treaty). A Treaty recognizes ultimate sovereignty to Cuba but the USA has control over it for so long and complete jurisdiction and the country is not abandoning the leased area.

The families of the captives after knowing about the detention filed a suit on 19 February 2002, in the federal District Court. The petitioners were seeking to get this detention being declared unconstitutional by way of writ of habeas corpus. The detainees alleged that they are being denied to contact with family or lawyers.

Along with seeking release through the petition, the petitioners also asked for unmonitored access to a private conversation with the attorney and ceased interrogation till the completion of the trial.

On June 10, 2002, a similar petition has been filed by an Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, who was taken as a captive from Pakistan two days after the 9/11 attack.

Here, the court dealt with three petitions of similar nature, 1st is by Rasul, Iqbal and David Hicks, the Second is by 12 Kuwaitis and the third is by Mamdouh Habib.

These petitions were dismissed by the District Court for lack of Jurisdiction and later through appeal heard and decided by United States Supreme Court.

Case Analysis of Rasul v Bush
File Photo of Shafiq Rasul. Credit: CNN

Chronological Timeline of the Rasul v Bush Case

January 2002: David Hicks, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, the plaintiffs were captured and detained in Guantanamo Bay.

February 19, 2002: CCR filed a Habeas Corpus writ in D.C on behalf of 3 petitioners (Rasul, Iqbal, David). The Habeas Corpus Petition Challenged the Presidential Executive Order which authorizes detention for an indefinite period of time without due process of law.

March 18, 2002: The government moved to dismiss the petition on the ground of lack of jurisdiction.

May 1, 2002: Al Odah vs Bush (12 Kuwaitis) was filed in D.C. in the month of may, Mamdouh Habib was also sent to Guantanamo Bay.

June 10, 2002: Petition was filed by Habib in D.C (Habib Vs. Bush)

June 26, 2002: Oral Arguments in DC for Rasul and Al Odah case.

July 30, 2002: The Petition of Rasul and Al Odah were dismissed for lack of Jurisdiction by Judge Kollar-Kotelly.

August 8, 2002: Al Odah petition was dismissed stating that the habeas petition is not for Non-U.S citizens detained outside the US Jurisdiction.

September 24, 2002: CCR and Co-Counsel filed the opening brief with D. C Circuit

December 2, 2002: Arguments were heard by D.C.C of three consolidated cases.

March 11, 2003: Dismissal was affirmed by D.C Circuit.

June 2, 2003: Request for reconsideration and rehearing en banc which was made on April 25, 2003, was denied by D.C Circuit

September 2, 2003: Writ of Certiorari was filed before SC by CCR and Co-Counsel.

October 2003: Eight Amicus Brief were filed in support of writ of certiorari and on 3rd October 2003, the Government filed oppositions to the petitions.

November 10, 2003: Writ of certiorari was granted by SC and heard objections of government

January 14, 2004: Opening Briefs has been filed by CCR and Co-Counsel in SC.

March 3, 2004: The government filed the brief and Amicus also filed the brief in support of the Government.

March 9, 2004: Rasul and Iqbal were released from the Bay.

April 20, 2004: After filing of reply by CCR and co-counsel, the oral arguments took place in SC.

June 28, 2004: SC ruled in favour of the detainees.

Issues and Questions of the Case

In Rasul v Bush case the question of the issue was as follows:

  1. Whether the United States court has an absence of jurisdiction for considering the challenges as to legality of the detention of nationals of foreign who were captured abroad during hostilities and were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
  2. Whether the foreign nationals detained in Guantanamo bay can seek and invoke Habeas Corpus in respect of wrongful detention or not?
  3. The question which Supreme Court had to answer and clarify that whether the habeas statute permits the judicial review on point of the legality of the detention of the aliens in a territory on which the United States exercises “plenary and exclusive jurisdiction”, but does not have “ultimate sovereignty”.

Rules and Relevant Applicable Laws

  1. Administrative Procedure Act
  2. Alien Tort Statute
  3. Habeas Corpus Statue

Arguments by the Petitioner

The petitioners in the Rasul v Bush case challenged the legality of their detention under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Alien Tort Statute and The General Habeas Corpus Statue under Section 2241- 2243, Title 28 of the US Code.

The petitioners denied being the combatants against the United States, they alleged that they have not been charged with any of the wrongdoings and also during detention they are not given the right to consult an attorney with no access to the court of law or tribunal.

The petitioner’s contention states that they have not voluntarily joined the terrorist forces and they held arms merely for self-defence. Rasul and Iqbal pleaded that they were with the Taliban since they have been taken as captives by Talibanis. While 12 Kuwaitis in Al Odah v United States claimed that they were just giving humanitarian aid in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While respondents advocated and supported their arguments on the basis of Eisentrager’s 339 U. S. 763 (1950) holding, the petitioner differed from it stating that they are not nationals of countries who are at war with the US, they also deny that they are not involved in any activity or acts of aggression against the US, they are not charged with wrongdoing and form more than 2 years they are made captives and are being detained over the territory on which the US have exclusive jurisdiction and also control

The Petitioners further alleged that they are made imprisoned in federal custody which is in violation of United States laws.

Further contended that the jurisdiction of District court over petitioner’s custody is unquestioned as per Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Ky.

The petitioner stated that Section 2241 of the Habeas Statute requires nothing more since petitioners are eligible lawfully to seek release and therefore confers jurisdiction on the District Court.

In addition, to invoke the district court’s jurisdiction under in habeas statute, the complaint of Al Odah petitioners also invoked the jurisdiction of the court under 28 U.S.C. under section 1331, the federal question statute and also Section 1350, The Alien Tort Statue.

While filing the opening brief at DC Circuit, the petitioner argued that if, the US court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to review the Executive detention at the naval base then in that case no other court has jurisdiction to review those petitions. Further continuing this argument, the petitioner submitted that the American Constitutional Tradition and International law requires the court to be able to review the legality of such detentions.

The petitioner also contended that their detention violates the 5th amendment along with some other provisions of the US Constitution and also the provisions of the Geneva Convention which governs the treatment of prisoners of war

Arguments by the Respondent

The respondent in the Rasul v Bush case, i.e., the government contended that due to jurisdictional dispute of Guantanamo Bay, the US court lacks jurisdiction for the matters arising in that area by application of Eisen Trager’s holding in which District Court lacked the authority to provide and grant relief under Habeas Statue to the German Citizens who were captured in China by US forces.

Further responded contended on the point of Section 2241 that it is limited by the principle presumption that the legislation does not have extraterritorial jurisdiction or application unless and until there is a clear manifestation of such intent by Congress.

The Government argued contending the lack of jurisdiction that the ‘detention’ of the petitioner does rest upon the President’s Common Law war powers and not based on military orders.

The government in further claims stated that the matter is more of a political question by nature that is not within the jurisdiction of the court.

The respondent also contended that federal courts are the courts of limited jurisdiction and unless authorized by constitution or statute it does not have the power which cannot even be expanded by way of judicial decree.

The Ratio of the Supreme Court in Rasul v Bush

The Supreme Court on June 2004 held with 6:3 ratio of judges that federal court consists the jurisdiction and therefore can consider the challenges pertaining to the legality of the Executive Detention of the captives of foreign nationals who were captured abroad and kept at Guantanamo bay during hostilities.

The district court while determining the issue of jurisdiction in this case dismissed the petition holding lack of jurisdiction. The reason for District Court judgement was based on the Estranger holding wherein the extraterritorial jurisdiction was denied. The question of jurisdiction arose in the case since Guantanamo bay situated in Cuba over which the US does not have Complete Sovereignty but have Plenary and Exclusive Jurisdiction according to the 1903 Treaty.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the District court’s judgement wherein STEVENS, J., joined by O’CONNOR, SOUTER, GINSBURG and BRYER, JJ., delivered the opinion of the court. The concurring opinion was filed by KENNEDY, J., and dissenting opinion by SCALIA, J., joined by REHNQUIST, C.J., and THOMAS, J.,

Court’s Opinion in Rasul v Bush

The degree of control which is exercised over Guantanamo Bay by the United States is sufficient enough in respect to trigger the application of the habeas corpus rights. Justice Stevens pointed out in respect of the habeas statute that it has been evolved over the last two centuries and has expanded the habeas corpus beyond the limits it was restricted during the 17th and 18th centuries. But considering the historical core of it, habeas corpus writ has been serving as a means of having reviewed the lawfulness or legality of the executive detention, and in this context, its protection ever since has been strongest.

At common law also, the habeas jurisdiction has been exercised by the courts over the claims and issues of the aliens who are detained within the realm of sovereign territory as in the case of King v. Schiever, in which habeas petition was reviewed for a neutral alien captured abroad.

The court also made reference to cases wherein the ordinary writs were not applicable like in the claims of the person detained in ‘exempt jurisdiction” where the writ of habeas corpus has been exercised and also other dominions which are under sovereign’s control.

The court reiterated that Lord Mansfield in 1759 wrote that even if the territory is not a part of the realm there is no doubt on the fact that the court has the power of issuing habeas corpus in case the territory is under the subjection of the crown.

Further, the court with the help of precedents opined with confirmation that the reach and extent of the writ are not dependent on the formal territorial sovereignty notions.

In addition to the habeas statute the petitioners invoked section 1331 of U.S.C and 1350 of Alien Tort Statute and the court held that the district court was right in dismissing these provisions since petitioners claim rests on violations of those similar categories which are listed in the habeas corpus statute, so the claims which are found on the habeas statute must be beyond the federal court’s jurisdiction.

By considering the overruled Ahrens decision by Braden’s case, the court opined it necessary that the right of the writ of habeas has to be given to the petitioner.

Case Analysis of Rasul v Bush

The Supreme Court reversed the judgement of the District Court and affirmed the jurisdiction of the court in the present case.

In agreement with the decision pronounced by the SC, the following is the analysis of the case-

While going through the trial of this case, the court interpreted several judgements and according to Ahrens vs. Clark and Johnson vs. Eisentrager, the petitioner shall not get the relief of habeas corpus as they are out of sovereignty of the US. The court here stated that the facts of the present case are different from these two precedents thus cannot be weighed on the same parameters. Therefore, for the rational study of this present matter court and specifically Stevens I order to give a broad interpretation, in this case, referred Braden v 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Ky which had overturned the above cases and gave the petitioner right to plea for the writ.

These differences themselves exhibited inter alia that in Eisentrager, six critical factors relevant to answer the question of entitlement of habeas corpus differs from the petition of the Rasul substantially as they were not the nationals of states who are at war with the US, there is a denial of the engagement of the petitioner in any act of aggression against the US, detainees were not given access to court or tribunal, they are not convicted of any wrongdoing and lastly, they have been detained in the territory on which the US have exclusive control.

Further, it has been clarified by Justice Stevens that Eisentrager’s rule would be applicable and have relevance only with respect to the petitioner’s Constitutional right to habeas review, but it did not establish and addressed the statutory entitlement. It has been established by the court in this case that Sec 2241 of the statute do not mandatorily require the physical presence of the plaintiff within the territorial jurisdiction of the court. All that is required here is that the custodian could be reached by the ‘service of the process.’

Moreover, the government’s contention that the statute should be interpreted to presume not to have the extraterritorial application in the given context was rightfully rejected. The US has complete jurisdiction and control over Guantanamo bay as in accordance with the 1903 lease agreement and continues to have such control for an indefinite period of time. Therefore, the US have unbridled power to consider the matters pertaining to this area. It should also be noted which has been found out by the court that the habeas statute is not dependent upon the citizenship status of the detainees.

The fact that the US should and must have legal jurisdiction over the area is unquestioned and agreeable because if the US denies its jurisdiction over the land, no other country can have such power. When the area is owned and controlled exclusively by the US only. The detainees will be left with no legal remedy in case the US court does not accept its jurisdiction which is against the notion of International law and also US common law.

Therefore, the analysis of this case brings us to the following conclusions-

That the US in spite of all the issues shall have jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The detainees were wrongfully taken into confinement for a long period of time without having access to judicial remedy in spite of denying all the connection to the enemy country or involvement in terrorist activity against the US.

The Eisentrager and Ahrens rulings are not applicable due to differences in given circumstances.

This case acts as clarification in case of difference of opinion in respect of jurisdictional contradiction for future reference for cases of similar nature.

The dissenting judge, Justice Scalia pointed out that giving power to federal court is not within the constitutional interpretation, however, while interpreting the habeas statute and relying on rule of law, the judgment of the court, in this case, is just, fair and rational

Conclusion and Further Development

It could be concluded through this case that by judicial activism, the persistent law can be altered for the benefit of the people. In Rasul v Bush, several detainees were seeking the writ of habeas corpus to get released as they were not part of the combatants. The district court dismissed the petition on lack of jurisdiction point but on appeal, the Hon’ble Supreme court through this judgement gave power to the federal court which is not in adherence of the constitution or other statute, however, in the existence of such gap, the duty of the judiciary is to fill that for the betterment of the citizens and those aggrieved detainees who are not citizens of US.

This case would be a landmark precedent for all the detainees at Guantanamo Bay or any other similar territory fighting for release by way of Habeas corpus writ petition in the District court. The rulings of Rasul initiated the litigation and trials on the legality of the detention and treatment at Guantanamo Bay of the detainees majorly due to the efforts of CCR and Co-Counsel. On the basis of this case, the CCR files Al Odah v US in which it challenged the legality of the continued detention. This case incorporated the other six petitions of habeas corpus which was later renamed as BOUMEDIENE v BUSH.

Department of Defence, after nine days of Rasul’s decision, established Military Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) which replaced the US Court’s Jurisdiction in reviewing and ascertaining whether the captives are to be classified as enemy combatants.

A Video Explanation of Rasul v Bush

For an interactive understanding, here is a video explanation for your reference. [This is not a sponsored video nor do we guarantee the authenticity of the video. It is for informative purposes only]

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