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White House Reacts to Ruling Giving Terrorism Suspects Access to Courts - 2004-07-01

The Bush administration is trying to figure out how to comply with Supreme Court rulings this week that limit its ability to indefinitely hold terrorism suspects without giving them access to U.S. courts.

The high court rulings were a setback to the administration's contention that they could hold terrorism suspects, either foreign or American, indefinitely without trial and without access to lawyers or U.S. courts.

By granting terrorism suspects access to American courts, Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole says the Supreme Court is acting as a kind of legal brake on the powers of the executive branch.

"What they say is that we must maintain a commitment to the rule of law, that 'trust us' is not an appropriate way of proceeding," he said. "And I think that is critically important, not only to maintaining a constitutional democracy, which is important in and of itself, but also to maintaining our security."

The impact of the Supreme Court rulings could be immediate for the nearly 600 detainees being held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Now that they have the option of having lawyers pursue their cases in American courts, legal experts are predicting a flood of petitions.

Retired U.S. Army General Michael Nardotti was the Army's top lawyer from 1993 until 1997. He spoke with VOA News Now.

"In the short term there are going to be numerous cases, in the hundreds, of cases in the federal courts of the United States of Guantanamo detainees who want to challenge their detention," he noted. "It is going to be a very significant impact on the courts."

Bush administration officials are now scrambling to comply with the Supreme Court rulings amid indications that many in the departments of Justice and Defense were caught by surprise when the high court decided that the detainees should have access to U.S. courts.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says the administration will take into account the Supreme Court rulings, but he also says the president remains committed to using all the legal tools at his disposal to protect the United States from terrorist attacks.

"The president's most important responsibility is the safety and security of the American people," he said. "We are a nation of war and the president does have the right to detain enemy combatants during this time of conflict and to hold them during that conflict. The court recognized that, but at the same time expressed some concerns and we will be putting a process in place to address those concerns."

Conservative legal analysts say the administration won at least a partial victory in the high court, because a majority of the justices did agree that the president has the right to detain terror suspects in a time of war.

Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush administration, says the Supreme Court has effectively given the administration a legal road map clarifying what it can and cannot do on the legal front in the war on terror.

"So I think that there is a great deal of recognition by the court of the practical realities of war and the necessary trust that it must imbue in the executive in a time of war," he said. "I do think that it does provide a very clear framework for the executive branch to look at safe legal harbors [legal justifications] for how it goes about basically implementing the same policy that it has already announced and committed itself to in order to be safe from judicial reversal."

Administration critics contend the high court rulings could have another important impact by restoring international faith in the American justice system and the rule of law.

"And if you look at why, why have we gone from having the world's sympathy to having the world's antipathy? It is because of the image that the United States acts as if it is not bound by the rule of law in holding detainees, in interrogating prisoners, especially when they are foreign nationals, in following the Geneva Conventions and in bypassing the [U.N.] Security Council on Iraq," said Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole.

The Supreme Court rulings were handed down just as the Defense Department was preparing to start an annual review program for the detainees at Guantanamo to determine which of the prisoners pose a continuing terrorist threat to the United States. It is not yet clear how the high court rulings will impact the review program.