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Fireworks finale

Law | The Supreme Court closely ruled on some explosive subjects, then adjourned for the summer

Issue: "Katie can't bar the door," July 15, 2006

Salim Hamdan is likely the most jubilant prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. The former driver for Osama bin Laden hasn't won his release from the U.S. military prison in Cuba, but he has won something he many never have thought possible: a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court.

That same high court doled out a flurry of decisions, dealing mostly with crime or politics, the week before it began a three-month recess early this month.

A 5-3 majority ruled in favor of Hamdan in his case challenging the military tribunal system set up for trying accused enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. Hamdan's attorney, Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal, said that when he told his client about the victory, a stunned Hamdan praised Allah three times.

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But Hamdan's jubilation could be short-lived. Though the court ruled that President Bush had exceeded his authority in ordering military trials for terrorist suspects like Hamdan, the majority added: ". . . nothing prevents the president from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary."

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez indicated that the president might do just that, saying military tribunals serve "a viable role in the war on terror."

Timothy Lynch, a criminal justice expert at the Cato Institute, told WORLD he supports the Bush administration's right to detain enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, but he also supports the Supreme Court's decision for a simple reason: "Military courts are for members of the military." Once an enemy combatant stands trial, Lynch says, he should stand in a civilian court.

Heritage Foundation legal expert Todd Gaziano disagrees, saying it would be "decidedly inappropriate" to give enemy combatants a civilian trial. He says military tribunals help to protect military intelligence that might be used as evidence in a terrorist's trial, and also help to protect civilians. Gaziano says Hamdan's high court victory proves that Guantanamo detainees "probably have more due process than has ever been granted an enemy combatant in history."

The high-profile Hamdan decision wasn't the only criminal case the court ruled on during its last week. In a 5-4 ruling that galvanized justices, the court upheld the Kansas death penalty law. That state's law says a jury must impose the death penalty (instead of a life sentence) if the aggravating circumstances, such as the brutality of a murder, appear to be equal to the mitigating factors that might argue against execution, such as a defendant's troubled childhood.

The decision will reinstate the death sentence for seven men on the state's death row, including plaintiff Michael Lee Marsh II, convicted of murdering a woman and her baby.

In another 5-4 decision, the court upheld Arizona's limited approach to the insanity defense. Arizona is one of a handful of states that does not allow defendants to argue that a mental illness prevented them from forming intent for their crimes. The majority found that standard constitutional and upheld the conviction of Eric Clark, who is serving a life sentence for intentionally killing a police officer.

The court also upheld the conviction of a Mexican man convicted of attempted murder in Oregon. Attorneys for Moises Sanchez-Llamas argued that the Oregon officials who arrested their client didn't inform him of his right to contact the Mexican consulate. A 6-3 majority found that wasn't a sufficient reason to overturn the conviction. Heritage Foundation's Gaziano said that decision sent a message: "International law doesn't trump domestic law."

The justices also dealt with politics, rejecting a broad challenge to a congressional redistricting plan in Texas. Democrats had charged Republicans with political gerrymandering, saying the majority party inappropriately exerted political influence to reshape district maps. The high court rebuffed that charge, ruling that a political party may legitimately use political control in redistricting plans.

But in the same decision, the court said the Republican Party acted inappropriately when it redrew the predominantly Latino district of Laredo by splitting it up and adding an Anglo population. The court said the party violated the Voting Rights Act by seeking to divide a minority voting bloc.

The court also took up campaign finance on its way out, finding Vermont's unusual limits on campaign contributions too low. Vermont law placed a $400 limit on contributions to state candidates' campaigns. That's the lowest cap in the nation.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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