June 29, 2006

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

    Justice Stevens announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I through IV, Parts VI through VI–D–iii, Part VI–D–v, and Part VII, and an opinion with respect to Parts V and VI–D–iv, in which Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer join.

    Petitioner Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national, is in custody at an American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In November 2001, during hostilities between the United States and the Taliban (which then governed Afghanistan), Hamdan was captured by militia forces and turned over to the U. S. military. In June 2002, he was transported to Guantanamo Bay. Over a year later, the President deemed him eligible for trial by military commission for then-unspecified crimes. After another year had passed, Hamdan was charged with one count of conspiracy “to commit … offenses triable by military commission.”

    Hamdan filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus and mandamus to challenge the Executive Branch’s intended means of prosecuting this charge. He concedes that a court-martial constituted in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) would have authority to try him. His objection is that the military commission the President has convened lacks such authority, for two principal reasons: First, neither congressional Act nor the common law of war supports trial by this commission for the crime of conspiracy—an offense that, Hamdan says, is not a violation of the law of war. Second, Hamdan contends, the procedures that the President has adopted to try him violate the most basic tenets of military and international law, including the principle that a defendant must be permitted to see and hear the evidence against him....

    For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the military commission convened to try Hamdan lacks power to proceed because its structure and procedures violate both the UCMJ and the Geneva Conventions. Four of us also conclude that the offense with which Hamdan has been charged is not an “offens[e] that by … the law of war may be tried by military commissions.”


    On September 11, 2001, agents of the al Qaeda terrorist organization hijacked commercial airplanes and attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and the national headquarters of the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. Americans will never forget the devastation wrought by these acts. Nearly 3,000 civilians were killed.

    Congress responded by adopting a Joint Resolution authorizing the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks … in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Acting pursuant to the AUMF, and having determined that the Taliban regime had supported al Qaeda, the President ordered the Armed Forces of the United States to invade Afghanistan. In the ensuing hostilities, hundreds of individuals, Hamdan among them, were captured and eventually detained at Guantanamo Bay.

    On November 13, 2001, while the United States was still engaged in active combat with the Taliban, the President issued a comprehensive military order intended to govern the “Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism,” 66 Fed. Reg. 57833 (hereinafter November 13 Order or Order). Those subject to the November 13 Order include any noncitizen for whom the President determines “there is reason to believe” that he or she (1) “is or was” a member of al Qaeda or (2) has engaged or participated in terrorist activities aimed at or harmful to the United States. Any such individual “shall, when tried, be tried by military commission for any and all offenses triable by military commission that such individual is alleged to have committed, and may be punished in accordance with the penalties provided under applicable law, including imprisonment or death.” The November 13 Order vested in the Secretary of Defense the power to appoint military commissions to try individuals subject to the Order, but that power has since been delegated to John D. Altenberg, Jr., a retired Army major general and longtime military lawyer who has been designated “Appointing Authority for Military Commissions.”

    On July 3, 2003, the President announced his determination that Hamdan and five other detainees at Guantanamo Bay were subject to the November 13 Order and thus triable by military commission. In December 2003, military counsel was appointed to represent Hamdan. Two months later, counsel filed demands for charges and for a speedy trial pursuant to Article 10 of the UCMJ. On February 23, 2004, the legal adviser to the Appointing Authority denied the applications, ruling that Hamdan was not entitled to any of the protections of the UCMJ. Not until July 13, 2004, after Hamdan had commenced this action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, did the Government finally charge him with the offense for which, a year earlier, he had been deemed eligible for trial by military commission.

    The charging document, which is unsigned, contains 13 numbered paragraphs. The first two paragraphs recite the asserted bases for the military commission’s jurisdiction—namely, the November 13 Order and the President’s July 3, 2003, declaration that Hamdan is eligible for trial by military commission. The next nine paragraphs, collectively entitled “General Allegations,” describe al Qaeda’s activities from its inception in 1989 through 2001 and identify Osama bin Laden as the group’s leader. Hamdan is not mentioned in these paragraphs.

    Only the final two paragraphs, entitled “Charge: Conspiracy,” contain allegations against Hamdan. Paragraph 12 charges that “from on or about February 1996 to on or about November 24, 2001,” Hamdan “willfully and knowingly joined an enterprise of persons who shared a common criminal purpose and conspired and agreed with [named members of al Qaeda] to commit the following offenses triable by military commission: attacking civilians; attacking civilian objects; murder by an unprivileged belligerent; and terrorism.”  There is no allegation that Hamdan had any command responsibilities, played a leadership role, or participated in the planning of any activity.

    Paragraph 13 lists four “overt acts” that Hamdan is alleged to have committed sometime between 1996 and November 2001 in furtherance of the “enterprise and conspiracy”: (1) he acted as Osama bin Laden’s “bodyguard and personal driver,” “believ[ing]” all the while that bin Laden “and his associates were involved in” terrorist acts prior to and including the attacks of September 11, 2001; (2) he arranged for transportation of, and actually transported, weapons used by al Qaeda members and by bin Laden’s bodyguards (Hamdan among them); (3) he “drove or accompanied [O]sama bin Laden to various al Qaida-sponsored training camps, press conferences, or lectures,” at which bin Laden encouraged attacks against Americans; and (4) he received weapons training at al Qaeda-sponsored camps.

    After this formal charge was filed, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington transferred Hamdan’s habeas and mandamus petitions to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) convened pursuant to a military order issued on July 7, 2004, decided that Hamdan’s continued detention at Guantanamo Bay was warranted because he was an “enemy combatant.” Separately, proceedings before the military commission commenced....

    On November 7, 2005, we granted certiorari to decide whether the military commission convened to try Hamdan has authority to do so, and whether Hamdan may rely on the Geneva Conventions in these proceedings.


    On February 13, 2006, the Government filed a motion to dismiss the writ of certiorari. The ground cited for dismissal was the recently enacted Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. We postponed our ruling on that motion pending argument on the merits, and now deny it...


    The military commission, a tribunal neither mentioned in the Constitution nor created by statute, was born of military necessity. Though foreshadowed in some respects by earlier tribunals like the Board of General Officers that General Washington convened to try British Major John André for spying during the Revolutionary War, the commission “as such” was inaugurated in 1847. As commander of occupied Mexican territory, and having available to him no other tribunal, General Winfield Scott that year ordered the establishment of both “ ‘military commissions’ ” to try ordinary crimes committed in the occupied territory and a “council of war” to try offenses against the law of war....

    Exigency alone, of course, will not justify the establishment and use of penal tribunals not contemplated by Article I, §8 and Article III, §1 of the Constitution unless some other part of that document authorizes a response to the felt need. And that authority, if it exists, can derive only from the powers granted jointly to the President and Congress in time of war.

    The Constitution makes the President the “Commander in Chief” of the Armed Forces, Art. II, §2, cl. 1, but vests in Congress the powers to “declare War … and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water,” Art. I, §8, cl. 11, to “raise and support Armies,” id., cl. 12, to “define and punish … Offences against the Law of Nations,” id., cl. 10, and “To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” The interplay between these powers was described by Chief Justice Chase in the seminal case of Ex parte Milligan:

“The power to make the necessary laws is in Congress; the power to execute in the President. Both powers imply many subordinate and auxiliary powers. Each includes all authorities essential to its due exercise. But neither can the President, in war more than in peace, intrude upon the proper authority of Congress, nor Congress upon the proper authority of the President… . Congress cannot direct the conduct of campaigns, nor can the President, or any commander under him, without the sanction of Congress, institute tribunals for the trial and punishment of offences, either of soldiers or civilians, unless in cases of a controlling necessity, which justifies what it compels, or at least insures acts of indemnity from the justice of the legislature.”

    Whether Chief Justice Chase was correct in suggesting that the President may constitutionally convene military commissions “without the sanction of Congress” in cases of “controlling necessity” is a question this Court has not answered definitively, and need not answer today. For we held in Quirin that Congress had, through Article of War 15, sanctioned the use of military commissions in such circumstances. Article 21 of the UCMJ, the language of which is substantially identical to the old Article 15 and was preserved by Congress after World War II, reads as follows:

“Jurisdiction of courts-martial not exclusive.

“The provisions of this code conferring jurisdiction upon courts-martial shall not be construed as depriving military commissions, provost courts, or other military tribunals of concurrent jurisdiction in respect of offenders or offenses that by statute or by the law of war may be tried by such military commissions, provost courts, or other military tribunals.” 

    We have no occasion to revisit Quirin’s controversial characterization of Article of War 15 as congressional authorization for military commissions. Contrary to the Government’s assertion, however, even Quirin did not view the authorization as a sweeping mandate for the President to “invoke military commissions when he deems them necessary.” Rather, the Quirin Court recognized that Congress had simply preserved what power, under the Constitution and the common law of war, the President had had before 1916 to convene military commissions—with the express condition that the President and those under his command comply with the law of war. That much is evidenced by the Court’s inquiry, following its conclusion that Congress had authorized military commissions, into whether the law of war had indeed been complied with in that case.

The Government would have us dispense with the inquiry that the Quirin Court undertook and find in either the AUMF or the DTA specific, overriding authorization for the very commission that has been convened to try Hamdan. Neither of these congressional Acts, however, expands the President’s authority to convene military commissions. First, while we assume that the AUMF activated the President’s war powers, see Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), and that those powers include the authority to convene military commissions in appropriate circumstances, there is nothing in the text or legislative history of the AUMF even hinting that Congress intended to expand or alter the authorization set forth in Article 21 of the UCMJ.

    Likewise, the DTA cannot be read to authorize this commission. Although the DTA, unlike either Article 21 or the AUMF, was enacted after the President had convened Hamdan’s commission, it contains no language authorizing that tribunal or any other at Guantanamo Bay....

Together, the UCMJ, the AUMF, and the DTA at most acknowledge a general Presidential authority to convene military commissions in circumstances where justified under the “Constitution and laws,” including the law of war. Absent a more specific congressional authorization, the task of this Court is, as it was in Quirin, to decide whether Hamdan’s military commission is so justified. It is to that inquiry we now turn.


    The common law governing military commissions may be gleaned from past practice and what sparse legal precedent exists. Commissions historically have been used in three situations. First, they have substituted for civilian courts at times and in places where martial law has been declared. Their use in these circumstances has raised constitutional questions, but is well recognized. Second, commissions have been established to try civilians “as part of a temporary military government over occupied enemy territory or territory regained from an enemy where civilian government cannot and does not function.” Illustrative of this second kind of commission is the one that was established, with jurisdiction to apply the German Criminal Code, in occupied Germany following the end of World War II.

    The third type of commission, convened as an “incident to the conduct of war” when there is a need “to seize and subject to disciplinary measures those enemies who in their attempt to thwart or impede our military effort have violated the law of war,” has been described as “utterly different” from the other two. Not only is its jurisdiction limited to offenses cognizable during time of war, but its role is primarily a factfinding one—to determine, typically on the battlefield itself, whether the defendant has violated the law of war. The last time the U. S. Armed Forces used the law-of-war military commission was during World War II. In Quirin, this Court sanctioned President Roosevelt’s use of such a tribunal to try Nazi saboteurs captured on American soil during the War. 

    Quirin is the model the Government invokes most frequently to defend the commission convened to try Hamdan. That is both appropriate and unsurprising. Since Guantanamo Bay is neither enemy-occupied territory nor under martial law, the law-of-war commission is the only model available. At the same time, no more robust model of executive power exists; Quirin represents the high-water mark of military power to try enemy combatants for war crimes...

    The classic treatise penned by Colonel William Winthrop describes at least four preconditions for exercise of jurisdiction by a tribunal of the type convened to try Hamdan. First, “[a] military commission, (except where otherwise authorized by statute), can legally assume jurisdiction only of offenses committed within the field of the command of the convening commander.” The “field of command” in these circumstances means the “theatre of war.” Second, the offense charged “must have been committed within the period of the war.” No jurisdiction exists to try offenses “committed either before or after the war.” Third, a military commission not established pursuant to martial law or an occupation may try only “[i]ndividuals of the enemy’s army who have been guilty of illegitimate warfare or other offences in violation of the laws of war” and members of one’s own army “who, in time of war, become chargeable with crimes or offences not cognizable, or triable, by the criminal courts or under the Articles of war.” Finally, a law-of-war commission has jurisdiction to try only two kinds of offense: “Violations of the laws and usages of war cognizable by military tribunals only,” and “[b]reaches of military orders or regulations for which offenders are not legally triable by court-martial under the Articles of war.”

    All parties agree that Colonel Winthrop’s treatise accurately describes the common law governing military commissions, and that the jurisdictional limitations he identifies were incorporated in Article of War 15 and, later, Article 21 of the UCMJ. It also is undisputed that Hamdan’s commission lacks jurisdiction to try him unless the charge “properly set[s] forth, not only the details of the act charged, but the circumstances conferring jurisdiction.” The question is whether the preconditions designed to ensure that a military necessity exists to justify the use of this extraordinary tribunal have been satisfied here.

    The charge against Hamdan, described in detail in Part I, alleges a conspiracy extending over a number of years, from 1996 to November 2001. All but two months of that more than 5-year-long period preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the enactment of the AUMF—the Act of Congress on which the Government relies for exercise of its war powers and thus for its authority to convene military commissions. Neither the purported agreement with Osama bin Laden and others to commit war crimes, nor a single overt act, is alleged to have occurred in a theater of war or on any specified date after September 11, 2001. None of the overt acts that Hamdan is alleged to have committed violates the law of war.

    These facts alone cast doubt on the legality of the charge and, hence, the commission; the offense alleged must have been committed both in a theater of war and during, not before, the relevant conflict. But the deficiencies in the time and place allegations also underscore—indeed are symptomatic of—the most serious defect of this charge: The offense it alleges is not triable by law-of-war military commission.

    There is no suggestion that Congress has, in exercise of its constitutional authority to “define and punish . . . Offences against the Law of Nations,” U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 10, positively identified “conspiracy” as a war crime. As we explained in Quirin, that is not necessarily fatal to the Government’s claim of authority to try the alleged offense by military commission; Congress, through Article 21 of the UCMJ, has “incorporated by reference” the common law of war, which may render triable by military commission certain offenses not defined by statute. When, however, neither the elements of the offense nor the range of permissible punishments is defined by statute or treaty, the precedent must be plain and unambiguous. To demand any less would be to risk concentrating in military hands a degree of adjudicative and punitive power in excess of that contemplated either by statute or by the Constitution.

    This high standard was met in Quirin; the violation there alleged was, by “universal agreement and practice” both in this country and internationally, recognized as an offense against the law of war....

    At a minimum, the Government must make a substantial showing that the crime for which it seeks to try a defendant by military commission is acknowledged to be an offense against the law of war. That burden is far from satisfied here. The crime of “conspiracy” has rarely if ever been tried as such in this country by any law-of-war military commission not exercising some other form of jurisdiction, and does not appear in either the Geneva Conventions or the Hague Conventions—the major treaties on the law of war....

     Finally, international sources confirm that the crime charged here is not a recognized violation of the law of war.  As observed above, none of the major treaties governing the law of war identifies conspiracy as a violation thereof. And the only “conspiracy” crimes that have been recognized by international war crimes tribunals (whose jurisdiction often extends beyond war crimes proper to crimes against humanity and crimes against the peace) are conspiracy to commit genocide and common plan to wage aggressive war, which is a crime against the peace and requires for its commission actual participation in a “concrete plan to wage war.”

    In sum, the sources that the Government and Justice Thomas rely upon to show that conspiracy to violate the law of war is itself a violation of the law of war in fact demonstrate quite the opposite. Far from making the requisite substantial showing, the Government has failed even to offer a “merely colorable” case for inclusion of conspiracy among those offenses cognizable by law-of-war military commission. Because the charge does not support the commission’s jurisdiction, the commission lacks authority to try Hamdan....

    The charge’s shortcomings are not merely formal, but are indicative of a broader inability on the Executive’s part here to satisfy the most basic precondition—at least in the absence of specific congressional authorization—for establishment of military commissions: military necessity. Hamdan’s tribunal was appointed not by a military commander in the field of battle, but by a retired major general stationed away from any active hostilities.  Hamdan is charged not with an overt act for which he was caught redhanded in a theater of war and which military efficiency demands be tried expeditiously, but with an agreement the inception of which long predated the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the AUMF. That may well be a crime, but it is not an offense that “by the law of war may be tried by military commissio[n].” 


    Whether or not the Government has charged Hamdan with an offense against the law of war cognizable by military commission, the commission lacks power to proceed. The UCMJ conditions the President’s use of military commissions on compliance not only with the American common law of war, but also with the rest of the UCMJ itself, insofar as applicable, and with the “rules and precepts of the law of nations” —including, inter alia, the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949. The procedures that the Government has decreed will govern Hamdan’s trial by commission violate these laws....


    We have assumed, as we must, that the allegations made in the Government’s charge against Hamdan are true. We have assumed, moreover, the truth of the message implicit in that charge—viz., that Hamdan is a dangerous individual whose beliefs, if acted upon, would cause great harm and even death to innocent civilians, and who would act upon those beliefs if given the opportunity. It bears emphasizing that Hamdan does not challenge, and we do not today address, the Government’s power to detain him for the duration of active hostilities in order to prevent such harm. But in undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction.

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