June 29, 2006

Misinterpreting the Hamdan decision

The NY Times has an article on the European reaction to the Hamdan Supreme Court decision. It is not surprising that Europeans are quite happy, but I think they really misinterpret the nature of this decision:

In Geneva, Gerald Staberock, a director with responsibility for counter-terrorism at the International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization, said the ruling meant Guantánamo detainees could no longer be treated differently from ordinary criminal defendants."The ruling destroys one of the key pillars of the Guantánamo system," Mr Staberock said. "Guantánamo was built on the idea that prisoners there have limited rights. There is no longer that legal black hole."
Now this is just untrue. The only thing this decision does is rebuke the President for the way he has overstepped Congressional power (something that is easy to forget exists these days). Of course, if Congress were to just change the laws constraining the President, then he could go back to trying the prisoners however he wants. Jack Balkin sums it up best:
I repeat: nothing in Hamdan means that the President is constitutionally forbidden from doing what he wants to do. What the Court has done, rather is use the democratic process as a lever to discipline and constrain the President's possible overreaching.
Now it would be silly of me to start ragging on Europeans for not understanding our legal system, or failing to really keep up with the specifics, but this is probably a common reaction even in the US. This is not Brown v. Board of Education, this is a very narrow decision that only sets the stage for a whole new battle in Congress. Of course, I would be lying if this decision did not give me new faith in American democracy (especially its implications for torture), but considering how Congress is already gearing up to give Bush the blank check he assumed he had, this battle isn't over.