Washington In a victory for President Bush, a divided federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Guantanamo Bay detainees cannot use the U.S. court system to challenge their indefinite imprisonment. A Supreme Court appeal was promised.
The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismisses hundreds of cases filed by foreign-born detainees in federal court and also threatens to strip away court access to millions of lawful permanent residents currently in the United States.
It upholds a key provision of the Military Commissions Act, which Bush pushed through Congress last year to set up a Defense Department system to prosecute terrorism suspects. Now, detainees must prove to three-officer military panels that they don't pose a terror threat.
Democrats newly in charge of Congress promised legislation aimed at giving detainees legal rights. Attorneys for detainees said they would appeal Tuesday's ruling to the Supreme Court.
"We're disappointed," said Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The bottom line is that according to two of the federal judges, the president can do whatever he wants without any legal limitations as long as he does it offshore."
The two judges voting with the White House - Judge A. Raymond Randolph and Judge David B. Sentelle - were appointed by Republicans. Reagan appointed Sentelle, and the first President Bush appointed Randolph. The dissenter, Judge Judith W. Rogers, was appointed by Clinton.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino called the decision "a significant win" for the administration and said the Military Commissions Act provides "sufficient and fair access to courts for these detainees."
At the Justice Department, attorneys urged Chief Justice John G. Roberts to deny legal relief to Guantanamo prisoners.
About 395 detainees are currently being held at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The first prisoners arrived more than five years ago, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
At issue is the right of habeas corpus, a basic tenet of the Constitution protecting detainees from unlawful imprisonment. Twice before, the Supreme Court ruled that right gave Guantanamo detainees full access to courts.
But in their latest ruling last June, justices suggested the president could ask Congress for more anti-terrorism authority, prompting passage of the commissions act that in part stripped federal court review.
Randolph, writing for the majority, said the new commissions act clearly blocked court access and was constitutional because a "foreign entity without property or presence in this country has no constitutional rights."