Editorial: A victory for the rule of law (Brattleboro Reformer)

There are roughly 270 prisoners being detained by the United States at a military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; some have been there for more than six years.

These men have been classified as "enemy combatants" and held on suspicion of terrorism or alleged links to the Taliban or al-Qaida. But most of these men have never been formally charged with a crime or seen the inside of a courtroom.

The Bush administration has argued that since they are enemy combatants -- a classification that does not exist under the Geneva Conventions -- the prisoners at Guantanamo do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution. They can be held indefinitely without charge and have no right to go before a civilian court to challenge their detention or review the evidence and testimony against them.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court reminded President Bush that the U.S. Constitution applies to foreign terrorism suspects and that he -- or any future president -- cannot suspend the right of habeas corpus that allows courts to determine whether a prisoner is being held illegally.

In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which denied the right of habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees. It is the third time that the Supreme Court has told the Bush administration that it can't continue to hold prisoners suspected of terrorism without legal justification.

Speaking from Rome Thursday, President Bush said that his administration "will abide by the court's decision. That doesn't mean I agree with it."

In other words, he will likely try again to come up with a way to allow him to continue to detain these men and violate centuries of legal precedent in the process.

But the court told the Bush administration that habeas corpus, established in the Magna Carta in 1215, applies to every man in every instance.

As one would expect, the four conservative justices -- Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia -- all sided with the administration. Scalia all but promised blood in the streets from future terror attacks. "America is at war with radical Islamists," he wrote, adding that the court's decision "will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed. ... The nation will live to regret what the court has done today."

We disagree. The continued existence of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, and the record of torture and abuse of detainees at Guantanamo and in other facilities around the world, fuels hatred and resentment of the United States. It is a dark stain on the soul of this nation.

The Supreme Court, in effect, told President Bush that if these 270 men are the supposed worst of the worst and the most evil men on the planet, prove it in a court of law. Not the kangaroo courts that are the military tribunals set up by the administration, but in a real court with a judge, defense and prosecuting attorneys and a jury. Formally charge these men in an open session and show the evidence that proves complicity for a crime. If the government can't do that, then set them free.

Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law."

An undeclared and ill-defined war against a stateless and ill-defined enemy is not a sufficient excuse to throw eight centuries of law out the window. We applaud Kennedy and fellow justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, David Souter and John Paul Stephens for standing up for the Constitution, for habeas corpus and for freedom.