A U.S. federal court in Washington has ordered a delay in the military trial of a man held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, pending a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of such trials.  The decision came Monday, the same day that the U.S. congress moved toward passing a law designed to end the legal debate over the tribunals.

The military tribunal for Australian detainee David Hicks was to begin at Guantanamo on Friday, but Federal Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the U.S. Defense Department to delay the proceeding.  The judge said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear a claim by another detainee that the tribunals are illegal requires that this tribunal wait until the high court issues its ruling, expected sometime next year.

The U.S. government has designated the approximately 500 men held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo as 'enemy combatants,' and says charges against them will be heard in the special military tribunals, a system that has not been used in the United States in more than 50 years.  The men are accused of various acts related to supporting terrorism, and many have been held since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

At a news conference on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the use of military tribunals for these detainees, and said he expects the courts to approve.

"Military commissions have been used in our history to good effect," said Mr. Rumsfeld.  "The president made a decision to make commissions available in this conflict, the global war on terror.  It's not surprising that courts intervene and then things get sorted out.  I personally think they'll end up being permitted under our constitution and our laws."

Secretary Rumsfeld said if the Supreme Court invalidates the commissions, government lawyers could pursue the cases through existing courts, or the congress could act to make the tribunals legal.

The U.S. Senate made a move in that direction on Tuesday.  It passed a provision that clarifies the president's right to authorize the tribunals, and would also give the detainees the right to appeal any verdicts against them to the regular U.S. federal courts.  The provision, which is part of the complex defense budget bill, still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the president before becoming law.

The bill also includes a ban on inhumane treatment of detainees, a clause the defense department says puts undue limits on military interrogators, who are already barred from using torture.  President Bush has threatened to veto the bill on that basis, if it still includes the clause when it reaches his desk.

The detainees, and some legal experts, believe the tribunals are illegal for several reasons. 

They say the tribunals do not provide the men with some of the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and by normal American court procedures.  They say the executive branch does not have the authority to conduct such trials, and should send the cases to the regular U.S. courts.  And they say the president has overstepped the authority the congress gave him several years ago to detain enemy combatants.

Law professor Judith Resnik of Yale University is among many legal experts who say that although the United States has used military tribunals in the past, they violate principles of fairness that have been established in the U.S. legal system in the last several decades.

"Some of the old cases that say we can, kind of, do what we want, predate contemporary American law, made under the last 50 years of interpreting the U.S. Constitution to say, 'we stand tall and proud, treating people with dignity.'  The point is, if what we're doing is right, then there's no need to not let independent life-tenured judges rule on it," said Ms. Resnik.

The government says the detainees are not entitled to the rights of regular defendants in U.S. courts, because they are enemy combatants captured abroad and held outside the United States.

It is not yet clear whether the new senate bill will become law, nor whether it would satisfy the courts about the legitimacy of the military tribunals.  For now, the entire controversial process is on hold, while the detainees and the U.S. military prosecutors wait for the Supreme Court to decide whether they can proceed.