Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. ___ (2006), is a United States Supreme Court case with numerous significant constitutional implications. The case questions the legality of Guantanamo military commissions set up by the Bush administration, whether the United States Congress has the authority to pass legislation preventing the Supreme Court from hearing the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place, and whether courts can enforce the articles of the 1949 Geneva Convention.[1]

The Supreme Court announced its decision on June 29, 2006. In a 5-3 decision, the Court held that the Bush administration did not have authority to set up the war crimes tribunals and found the special military commissions illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention.[2]


Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a citizen of Yemen, was captured during the invasion of Afghanistan and detained by the United States at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In July 2004, he was charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism, and the Bush administration made arrangements to try him before a military commission. Hamdan filed a petition of habeas corpus, arguing that he was being held without due process. Following the Supreme Court ruling on another case, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Hamdan was granted a review before the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which determined that he was eligible for detention by the United States as an enemy combatant or person of interest.[1]

District and Appeals Court rulingsEdit

After reviewing Hamdan's petition of habeas corpus, Judge James Robertson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in Hamdan's favor, stating that the United States could not hold a military commission unless it was first shown that the detainee was not a prisoner of war.[3][4][5] This distinction is required for a military commission to proceed according to the Geneva Convention, of which the United States is a signatory.

A three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Arthur Raymond Randolph, John G. Roberts, Jr. (now the Chief Justice of the United States), and Stephen F. Williams, unanimously reversed this decision on July 15, 2005.[6] Judge Randolph wrote the decision, and cited the following reasons for the legality of the military commissions:

  1. Military commissions are legitimate forums to try enemy combatants because they have been approved by Congress.
  2. The Geneva Convention is a treaty between nations and as such it does not confer individual rights and remedies.
  3. Even if the Geneva Convention could be enforced in U.S. courts, it would not be of assistance to Hamdan at the time because, for a conflict such as the war against al-Qaeda that is not between two countries, it guarantees only a certain standard of judicial procedure—a "competent tribunal"—without speaking to the jurisdiction in which the prisoner must be tried.
  4. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, al Qaeda and its members are not covered.

In addition, they ruled that the U.S. president has the constitutional authority to try Hamdan because Congress authorized such activity by statute. They also stated that the judicial branch of the United States government cannot enforce the Convention, thus invalidating Hamdan's argument that he cannot be tried until after his prisoner of war status is determined.[1]

Supreme Court rulingEdit

On 7 November 2005, the Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari to hear the case.[7][8] The petition was filed on behalf of Hamdan by Neal Katyal of Georgetown University Law Center and Lt. Commander Charles Swift of the U.S. Navy.

The case was argued before the court on 28 March 2006. Katyal argued on behalf of Hamdan and Paul Clement, the Solicitor General of the United States, argued on behalf of the government.[9] John G. Roberts Jr., the new Chief Justice, recused himself from this case, since he ruled on it when he sat on the Court of Appeals. Critics called for the recusal of Justice Antonin Scalia, since he made comments about the case prior to oral arguments.[10], but he chose not to recuse himself from the case.

The Supreme Court announced its decision on 29 June 2006. The Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals, holding that President Bush did not have authority to set up the war crimes tribunals and finding the special military commissions illegal under both military justice law and the Geneva Convention.[11][12] But Justice Breyer, concurring in the decision, contended that the commissions are not necessarily categorically prohibited, as long as Congress approves them: "...Congress has denied the President the legislative authority to create military commissions of the kind at issue here. Nothing prevents the President from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary."


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Duke Law's Supreme Court Online, 2005.
  2. "In Loss for Bush, Supreme Court Blocks War-Crimes Trials at Guantanamo", Associated Press, as reported by the New York Times, June 29, 2006
  3. Bin Laden's driver outmanoeuvres Guantanamo trials, Sydney Morning Herald, November 9 2004
  4. Court bars efforts to try terrorist before military commissions, Washington Legal Foundation, November 9 2004
  5. High Court Sidesteps Guantanamo Bay Case, Los Angeles Times, January 19 2005
  6. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, July 18, 2005.
  7. Supreme Court to hear challenge to Gitmo tribunals Jurist, University of Pittsburg School of Law, November 7, 2005.
  8. Supreme Court to Hear Tribunals Challenge, The Guardian, November 7, 2005
  9. Hamdan, Salim v. Rumsfeld, Donald (Secy. of Defense) Medill, Northwestern University, November 11, 2005.
  10. Report: Scalia against rights for Gitmo detainees,, March 26, 2006
  11. Template:Cite news
  12. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (pdf). Supreme Court of the United States.

External linksEdit

Court documentsEdit

News reports, commentaryEdit

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