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Rare legal victory for detainees

The federal appeals court in the nation’s capital — in a rare, but partial, legal victory for Guantanamo Bay detainees — ruled on Tuesday that they may go to court to challenge harsh conditions in their military-run prison.  Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused for now to block the military there from using force-feeding to try to end prisoners’ hunger strikes, the decision gave the detainees a new chance to press their challenge further.

The panel’s two-to-one decision in Aamer v. Obama (Circuit docket 13-5223) came from a court that has issued a series of decisions over the past decade that significantly narrowed the right of Guantanamo prisoners to assert legal rights against their captors.   The panel majority was able to recognize a new legal right this time by a broad reading of one of the circuit’s prior decisions, a 1970 ruling that had nothing to do with Guantanamo, military detention, or the government’s round-up of terrorism suspects.

Technically speaking, the court of appeals panel refused to issue a preliminary order to stop Guantanamo guards from using force-feeding to try to keep alive, or protect the health of, hunger-striking detainees.  Three detainees, the majority held, have not yet made a sufficiently strong case to entitle them — at this point — to a court-ordered ban on the practice of using a nasal tube to feed prisoners who refuse to eat as a protest over their continued imprisonment at Guantanamo.  The three involved in the case have been cleared for release, yet remain there.

But the prisoners will get a further chance to try to make their case, because the majority ruled for the first time that the right of detained individuals to seek a writ of habeas corpus to challenge their confinement also extends to claims that the actual conditions behind bars are illegal, and thus make the detention itself illegal.

The majority actually found a way around a 2006 law that Congress had passed with the explicit aim of barring Guantanamo prisoners from going to court to challenge the conditions of their confinement.  The majority said that provision did not deal with the scope of habeas rights, as such, and habeas rights do include an opportunity to complain in court about conditions so harsh that they are unlawful.

The decision flatly rejected the federal government’s argument that Guantanamo detainees can only file habeas petitions to challenge where they are confined, not the conditions that they face behind those walls.

Actually, the majority said, a claim challenging the place of confinement is not that much different from a claim challenging conditions at that place.  “A place of confinement claim . . . rests on the contention that the conditions of confinement in a particular place violates the law,” it said, adding that “a conditions of confinement claim involves the very same inquiry:  do the conditions in which the [challenger] is currently behind held violate the law?”

The ruling was written by Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, and joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith.  Dissenting on the newly granted right to challenge was Senior Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams.

The decision is subject to government challenge, either by seeking review before the en banc D.C. Circuit or by appealing to the Supreme Court, or, in time, both.   There is a conflict among federal appeals courts on the issue of whether habeas rights embrace challenges to conditions of confinement — an issue the Supreme Court itself has repeatedly left open.

In turning down the three detainees’ plea for a court order to stop force-feeding at Guantanamo, the D.C. Circuit concluded that, based on the record of the case so far, the prisoners had not shown that this approach was not necessary to the government’s control of prisoner behavior at the prison on the island of Cuba, including preventing prisoners from killing themselves or seriously impairing their health by starvation.

“Absent exceptional circumstances,” the opinion declared, “prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death.”  The three detainees in this case, it added, “point to nothing specific to their situation that would give us a basis for concluding that the government’s legitimate penological interests cannot justify the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo.”

The court of appeals thus concluded that, as the case proceeds further, the prisoners are not likely to succeed in their claim that force-feeding at Guantanamo is an illegal condition of confinement.   But it stressed that this decision was not the end of the matter for these detainees, or others.

“It is conceivable,” the opinion said, that the detainees on returning to district court with their new right to challenge conditions at Guantanamo may be able to bring forth new arguments against the practice, and the need for it among alternatives open to the guards.

It stressed that, when district court judges confront the next round in such cases, they will have a duty to decide “what procedures may be necessary” to provide Guantanamo detainees “a meaningful opportunity” to demonstrate that the conditions of their imprisonment are illegal.

In establishing the new right for Guantanamo detainees to contest the conditions of imprisonment, the panel majority said that it had assigned the most importance among precedents to that court’s 1970 decision in the case of Hudson v. Hardy, involving a District of Columbia inmate who had gone to court to try to get protection against what he claimed were repeated beatings and threats, and the denial of his religious beliefs by his jailers.  It sent that case back to a district court to hear and decide the inmate’s challenge.

In dissent, Judge Williams strenuously objected to the majority’s interpretation of that 1970 precedent.  And he stressed that the Supreme Court had consistently declined to rule that habeas challenges could include prisoners’ objections to their conditions of confinement.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Rare legal victory for detainees, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 11, 2014, 6:39 PM),