Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004): Landmark Supreme Court Case
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004)
In the fall of 2001, Yaser Hamdi, an American citizen, was detained by the United States military in Afghanistan. He was accused of fighting for the Taliban against the U.S., declared an “enemy combatant,” and was held in Guantanamo Bay. Upon learning he was an American citizen, he was transferred to a military prison in Virginia.
Hamdi’s father, Esam Fouad Hamdi, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus naming himself as Hamdi’s “next friend,” in an attempt to have Hamdi’s detention declared unconstitutional. The district court granted Hamdi’s petition, and appointed the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, Frank Dunham, Jr., as counsel for the petitioners. He argued that the government had violated Hamdi’s Fifth Amendment right to Due Process by holding him indefinitely and not giving him access to an attorney or a trial. The government countered that the Executive Branch had the right, during wartime, to declare people who fight against the United States “enemy combatants” and thus restrict their access to the court system.
The district court refused to answer the question of whether the declaration of “enemy combatant” was sufficient to justify his detention without review of materials and criteria used in making the determination. It ordered the government to produce these materials for a review by the court. Not wanting to produce these materials, the government appealed.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed, finding that the separation of powers required federal courts to practice restraint during wartime because “the executive and legislative branches are organized to supervise the conduct of overseas conflict in a way that the judiciary simply is not.” The panel therefore found that it should defer to the Executive Branch’s “enemy combatant” determination.
Q: Did the government violate Hamdi’s Fifth Amendment right to Due Process by holding him indefinitely, without access to an attorney, based solely on an Executive Branch declaration that he was an “enemy combatant” who fought against the United States?
A: Yes. Although Congress authorized Hamdi’s detention, 5th Amendment Due Process guarantees give a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant the right to contest that detention before a neutral decision maker.
6-3 decision ruling U.S. citizens designated as enemy combatants by the Executive Branch have a right to challenge their detainment under the Due Process Clause. The Court recognized the power of the U.S. government to detain enemy combatants, including U.S. citizens, but detainees who are U.S. citizens must have the ability to challenge their enemy combatant status before an impartial authority. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded.