HAMDI V. RUMSFELD (03-6696) 542 U.S. 507 (2004)
[ O’Connor ]
[ Scalia ]
[ Thomas ]
[ Opinion of Souter ]
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Scalia, J., dissenting


No. 03—6696

OF DEFENSE, et al.


[June 28, 2004]

Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Stevens joins, dissenting.

Petitioner, a presumed American citizen, has been imprisoned without charge or hearing in the Norfolk and Charleston Naval Brigs for more than two years, on the allegation that he is an enemy combatant who bore arms against his country for the Taliban. His father claims to the contrary, that he is an inexperienced aid worker caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. This case brings into conflict the competing demands of national security and our citizens’ constitutional right to personal liberty. Although I share the Court’s evident unease as
it seeks to reconcile the two, I do not agree with its

Where the Government accuses a citizen of waging war against it, our constitutional tradition has been to prosecute him in federal court for treason or some other crime. Where the exigencies of war prevent that, the Constitution’s Suspension Clause, Art. I, §9, cl. 2, allows Congress to relax the usual protections temporarily. Absent suspension, however, the Executive’s assertion of military exigency has not been thought sufficient to permit detention without charge. No one contends that the congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force, on which the Government relies to justify its actions here, is an implementation of the Suspension Clause. Accordingly, I would reverse the decision below.


The very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive. Blackstone stated this principle clearly:

“Of great importance to the public is the preservation of this personal liberty: for if once it were left in the power of any, the highest, magistrate to imprison arbitrarily whomever he or his officers thought proper … there would soon be an end of all other rights and immunities. … To bereave a man of life, or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole kingdom. But confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to gaol, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten; is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government. …

“To make imprisonment lawful, it must either be, by process from the courts of judicature, or by warrant from some legal officer, having authority to commit to prison; which warrant must be in writing, under the hand and seal of the magistrate, and express the causes of the commitment, in order to be examined into (if necessary) upon a habeas corpus. If there be no cause expressed, the gaoler is not bound to detain the prisoner. For the law judges in this respect, … that it is unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not to signify withal the crimes alleged against him.” 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 132—133 (1765) (hereinafter Blackstone).

These words were well known to the Founders. Hamilton quoted from this very passage in The Federalist No. 84, p. 444 (G. Carey & J. McClellan eds. 2001). The two ideas central to Blackstone’s understanding–due process as the right secured, and habeas corpus as the instrument by which due process could be insisted upon by a citizen illegally imprisoned–found expression in the Constitution’s Due Process and Suspension Clauses. See Amdt. 5; Art. I, §9, cl. 2.

The gist of the Due Process Clause, as understood at the founding and since, was to force the Government to follow those common-law procedures traditionally deemed necessary before depriving a person of life, liberty, or property. When a citizen was deprived of liberty because of alleged criminal conduct, those procedures typically required committal by a magistrate followed by indictment and trial. See, e.g., 2 & 3 Phil. & M., c. 10 (1555); 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §1783, p. 661 (1833) (hereinafter Story) (equating “due process of law” with “due presentment or indictment, and being brought in to answer thereto by due process of the common law”). The Due Process Clause “in effect affirms the right of trial according to the process and proceedings of the common law.” Ibid. See also T. Cooley, General Principles of Constitutional Law 224 (1880) (“When life and liberty are in question, there must in every instance be judicial proceedings; and that requirement implies an accusation, a hearing before an impartial tribunal, with proper jurisdiction, and a conviction and judgment before the
punishment can be inflicted” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

To be sure, certain types of permissible noncriminal detention–that is, those not dependent upon the contention that the citizen had committed a criminal act–did not require the protections of criminal procedure. However, these fell into a limited number of well-recognized exceptions–civil commitment of the mentally ill, for example, and temporary detention in quarantine of the infectious. See Opinion on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, 97 Eng. Rep. 29, 36—37 (H. L. 1758) (Wilmot, J.). It is unthinkable that the Executive could render otherwise criminal grounds for detention noncriminal merely by disclaiming an intent to prosecute, or by asserting that it was incapacitating dangerous offenders rather than punishing wrongdoing. Cf. Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346, 358 (1997) (“A finding of dangerousness, standing alone, is ordinarily not a sufficient ground upon which to justify indefinite involuntary commitment”).

These due process rights have historically been vindicated by the writ of habeas corpus. In England before the founding, the writ developed into a tool for challenging executive confinement. It was not always effective. For example, in Darnel’s Case, 3 How. St. Tr. 1 (K. B. 1627), King Charles I detained without charge several individuals for failing to assist England’s war against France and Spain. The prisoners sought writs of habeas corpus, arguing that without specific charges, “imprisonment shall not continue on for a time, but for ever; and the subjects of this kingdom may be restrained of their liberties perpetually.” Id., at 8. The Attorney General replied that the Crown’s interest in protecting the realm justified imprisonment in “a matter of state … not ripe nor timely” for the ordinary process of accusation and trial. Id., at 37. The court denied relief, producing widespread outrage, and Parliament responded with the Petition of Right, accepted by the King in 1628, which expressly prohibited imprisonment without formal charges, see 3 Car. 1, c. 1, §§5, 10.

The struggle between subject and Crown continued, and culminated in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, 31 Car. 2, c. 2, described by Blackstone as a “second magna charta, and stable bulwark of our liberties.” 1 Blackstone 133. The Act governed all persons “committed or detained … for any crime.” §3. In cases other than felony or treason plainly expressed in the warrant of commitment, the Act required release upon appropriate sureties (unless the commitment was for a nonbailable offense). Ibid. Where the commitment was for felony or high treason, the Act did not require immediate release, but instead required the Crown to commence criminal proceedings within a specified time. §7. If the prisoner was not “indicted some Time in the next Term,” the judge was “required … to set at Liberty the Prisoner upon Bail” unless the King was unable to produce his witnesses. Ibid. Able or no, if the prisoner was not brought to trial by the next succeeding term, the Act provided that “he shall be discharged from his Imprisonment.” Ibid. English courts sat four terms per year, see 3 Blackstone 275—277, so the practical effect of this provision was that imprisonment without indictment or trial for felony or high treason under §7 would not exceed approximately three to six months.

The writ of habeas corpus was preserved in the Constitution–the only common-law writ to be explicitly mentioned. See Art. I, §9, cl. 2. Hamilton lauded “the establishment of the writ of habeas corpus in his Federalist defense as a means to protect against “the practice of arbitrary imprisonments … in all ages, [one of] the favourite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supra, at 444. Indeed, availability of the writ under the new Constitution (along with the requirement of trial by jury in criminal cases, see Art. III, §2, cl. 3) was his basis for arguing that additional, explicit procedural protections were unnecessary. See The Federalist No. 83, at 433.


The allegations here, of course, are no ordinary accusations of criminal activity. Yaser Esam Hamdi has been imprisoned because the Government believes he participated in the waging of war against the United States. The relevant question, then, is whether there is a different, special procedure for imprisonment of a citizen accused of wrongdoing by aiding the enemy in wartime.


Justice O’Connor, writing for a plurality of this Court, asserts that captured enemy combatants (other than those suspected of war crimes) have traditionally been detained until the cessation of hostilities and then released. Ante, at 10—11. That is probably an accurate description of wartime practice with respect to enemy aliens. The tradition with respect to American citizens, however, has been quite different. Citizens aiding the enemy have been treated as traitors subject to the criminal process.

As early as 1350, England’s Statute of Treasons made it a crime to “levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort, in the Realm, or elsewhere.” 25 Edw. 3, Stat. 5, c. 2. In his 1762 Discourse on High Treason, Sir Michael Foster explained:

“With regard to Natural-born Subjects there can be no Doubt. They owe Allegiance to the Crown at all Times and in all Places.

. . . . .

“The joining with Rebels in an Act of Rebellion, or with Enemies in Acts of Hostility, will make a Man a Traitor: in the one Case within the Clause of Levying War, in the other within that of Adhering to the King’s enemies.

. . . . .

“States in Actual Hostility with Us, though no War be solemnly Declared, are Enemies within the meaning of the Act. And therefore in an Indictment on the Clause of Adhering to the King’s Enemies, it is sufficient to Aver that the Prince or State Adhered to is an Enemy, without shewing any War Proclaimed… . And if the Subject of a Foreign Prince in Amity with Us, invadeth the Kingdom without Commission from his Sovereign, He is an Enemy. And a Subject of England adhering to Him is a Traitor within this Clause of the Act.” A Report of Some Proceedings on the Commission … for the Trial of the Rebels in the Year 1746 in the County of Surry, and of Other Crown Cases, Introduction, §1, p. 183; Ch. 2, §8, p. 216; §12, p. 219.

Subjects accused of levying war against the King were routinely prosecuted for treason. E.g., Harding’s Case, 2 Ventris 315, 86 Eng. Rep. 461 (K. B. 1690); Trial of Parkyns, 13 How. St. Tr. 63 (K. B. 1696); Trial of Vaughan, 13 How. St. Tr. 485 (K. B. 1696); Trial of Downie, 24 How. St. Tr. 1 (1794). The Founders inherited the understanding that a citizen’s levying war against the Government was to be punished criminally. The Constitution provides: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort”; and establishes a heightened proof requirement (two witnesses) in order to “convic[t]” of that offense. Art. III, §3, cl. 1.

In more recent times, too, citizens have been charged and tried in Article III courts for acts of war against the United States, even when their noncitizen co-conspirators were not. For example, two American citizens alleged to have participated during World War I in a spying conspiracy on behalf of Germany were tried in federal court. See United States v. Fricke, 259 F. 673 (SDNY 1919); United States v. Robinson, 259 F. 685 (SDNY 1919). A German member of the same conspiracy was subjected to military process. See United States ex rel. Wessels v. McDonald, 265 F. 754 (EDNY 1920). During World War II, the famous German saboteurs of Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942), received military process, but the citizens who associated with them (with the exception of one citizen-saboteur, discussed below) were punished under the criminal process. See Haupt v. United States, 330 U.S. 631 (1947); L. Fisher, Nazi Saboteurs on Trial 80—84 (2003); see also Cramer v. United States, 325 U.S. 1 (1945).

The modern treason statute is 18 U.S.C. § 2381; it basically tracks the language of the constitutional provision. Other provisions of Title 18 criminalize various acts of warmaking and adherence to the enemy. See, e.g., §32 (destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities), §2332a (use of weapons of mass destruction), §2332b (acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries), §2339A (providing material support to terrorists), §2339B (providing material support to certain terrorist organizations), §2382 (misprision of treason), §2383 (rebellion or insurrection), §2384 (seditious conspiracy), §2390 (enlistment to serve in armed hostility against the United States). See also 31 CFR § 595.204 (2003) (prohibiting the “making or receiving of any contribution of funds, goods, or services” to terrorists); 50 U.S.C. § 1705(b) (criminalizing violations of 31 CFR § 595.204). The only citizen other than Hamdi known to be imprisoned in connection with military hostilities in Afghanistan against the United States was subjected to criminal process and convicted upon a guilty plea. See United States v. Lindh, 212 F. Supp. 2d 541 (ED Va. 2002) (denying motions for dismissal); Seelye, N. Y. Times, Oct. 5, 2002, p. A1, col. 5.


There are times when military exigency renders resort to the traditional criminal process impracticable. English law accommodated such exigencies by allowing legislative suspension of the writ of habeas corpus for brief periods. Blackstone explained:

“And yet sometimes, when the state is in real danger, even this [i.e., executive detention] may be a necessary measure. But the happiness of our constitution is, that it is not left to the executive power to determine when the danger of the state is so great, as to render this measure expedient. For the parliament only, or legislative power, whenever it sees proper, can authorize the crown, by suspending the habeas corpus act for a short and limited time, to imprison suspected persons without giving any reason for so doing… . In like manner this experiment ought only to be tried in case of extreme emergency; and in these the nation parts with it[s] liberty for a while, in order to preserve it for ever.” 1 Blackstone 132.

Where the Executive has not pursued the usual course of charge, committal, and conviction, it has historically secured the Legislature’s explicit approval of a suspension. In England, Parliament on numerous occasions passed temporary suspensions in times of threatened invasion or rebellion. E.g., 1 W. & M., c. 7 (1688) (threatened return of James II); 7 & 8 Will. 3, c. 11 (1696) (same); 17 Geo. 2, c. 6 (1744) (threatened French invasion); 19 Geo. 2, c. 1 (1746) (threatened rebellion in Scotland); 17 Geo. 3, c. 9 (1777) (the American Revolution). Not long after Massachusetts had adopted a clause in its constitution explicitly providing for habeas corpus, see Mass. Const. pt. 2, ch. 6, art. VII (1780), reprinted in 3 Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters and Other Organic Laws 1888, 1910 (F. Thorpe ed. 1909), it suspended the writ in order to deal with Shay’s Rebellion, see Act for Suspending the Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus, ch. 10, 1786 Mass. Acts 510.

Our Federal Constitution contains a provision explicitly permitting suspension, but limiting the situations in which it may be invoked: “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Art. I, §9, cl. 2. Although this provision does not state that suspension must be effected by, or authorized by, a legislative act, it has been so understood, consistent with English practice and the Clause’s placement in Article I. See Ex parte Bollman, 4 Cranch 75, 101 (1807); Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144, 151—152 (CD Md. 1861) (Taney, C. J., rejecting Lincoln’s unauthorized suspension); 3 Story §1336, at 208—209.

The Suspension Clause was by design a safety valve, the Constitution’s only “express provision for exercise of extraordinary authority because of a crisis,” Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 650 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring). Very early in the Nation’s history, President Jefferson unsuccessfully sought a suspension of habeas corpus to deal with Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to overthrow the Government. See 16 Annals of Congress 402—425 (1807). During the Civil War, Congress passed its first Act authorizing Executive suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, see Act of Mar. 3, 1863, 12 Stat. 755, to the relief of those many who thought President Lincoln’s unauthorized proclamations of suspension (e.g., Proclamation No. 1, 13 Stat. 730 (1862)) unconstitutional. Later Presidential proclamations of suspension relied upon the congressional authorization, e.g., Proclamation No. 7, 13 Stat. 734 (1863). During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which included a provision authorizing suspension of the writ, invoked by President Grant in quelling a rebellion in nine South Carolina counties. See Act of Apr. 20, 1871, ch. 22, §4, 17 Stat. 14; A Proclamation [of Oct. 17, 1871], 7 Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 136—138 (J. Richardson ed. 1899) (hereinafter Messages and Papers); id., at 138—139.

Two later Acts of Congress provided broad suspension authority to governors of U.S. possessions. The Philippine Civil Government Act of 1902 provided that the Governor of the Philippines could suspend the writ in case of rebellion, insurrection, or invasion. Act of July 1, 1902, ch. 1369, §5, 32 Stat. 691. In 1905 the writ was suspended for nine months by proclamation of the Governor. See Fisher v. Baker, 203 U.S. 174, 179—181 (1906). The Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 likewise provided that the Governor of Hawaii could suspend the writ in case of rebellion or invasion (or threat thereof). Ch. 339, §67, 31 Stat. 153.


Of course the extensive historical evidence of criminal convictions and habeas suspensions does not necessarily refute the Government’s position in this case. When the writ is suspended, the Government is entirely free from judicial oversight. It does not claim such total liberation here, but argues that it need only produce what it calls “some evidence” to satisfy a habeas court that a detained individual is an enemy combatant. See Brief for Respondents 34. Even if suspension of the writ on the one hand, and committal for criminal charges on the other hand, have been the only traditional means of dealing with citizens who levied war against their own country, it is theoretically possible that the Constitution does not require a choice between these alternatives.

I believe, however, that substantial evidence does refute that possibility. First, the text of the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act makes clear that indefinite imprisonment on reasonable suspicion is not an available option of treatment for those accused of aiding the enemy, absent a suspension of the writ. In the United States, this Act was read as “enforc[ing] the common law,” Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 193, 202 (1830), and shaped the early understanding of the scope of the writ. As noted above, see supra, at 5, §7 of the Act specifically addressed those committed for high treason, and provided a remedy if they were not indicted and tried by the second succeeding court term. That remedy was not a bobtailed judicial inquiry into whether there were reasonable grounds to believe the prisoner had taken up arms against the King. Rather, if the prisoner was not indicted and tried within the prescribed time, “he shall be discharged from his Imprisonment.” 31 Car. 2, c. 2, §7. The Act does not contain any exception for wartime. That omission is conspicuous, since §7 explicitly addresses the offense of “High Treason,” which often involved offenses of a military nature. See cases cited supra, at 7.

Writings from the founding generation also suggest that, without exception, the only constitutional alternatives are to charge the crime or suspend the writ. In 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison questioning the need for a Suspension Clause in cases of rebellion in the proposed Constitution. His letter illustrates the constraints under which the Founders understood themselves to operate:

“Why suspend the Hab. corp. in insurrections and rebellions? The parties who may be arrested may be charged instantly with a well defined crime. Of course the judge will remand them. If the publick safety requires that the government should have a man imprisoned on less probable testimony in those than in other emergencies; let him be taken and tried, retaken and retried, while the necessity continues, only giving him redress against the government for damages.” 13 Papers of Thomas Jefferson 442 (July 31, 1788) (J. Boyd ed. 1956).

A similar view was reflected in the 1807 House debates over suspension during the armed uprising that came to be known as Burr’s conspiracy:

“With regard to those persons who may be implicated in the conspiracy, if the writ of habeas corpus be not suspended, what will be the consequence? When apprehended, they will be brought before a court of justice, who will decide whether there is any evidence that will justify their commitment for farther prosecution. From the communication of the Executive, it appeared there was sufficient evidence to authorize their commitment. Several months would elapse before their final trial, which would give time to collect evidence, and if this shall be sufficient, they will not fail to receive the punishment merited by their crimes, and inflicted by the laws of their country.” 16 Annals of Congress, at 405 (remarks of Rep. Burwell).

The absence of military authority to imprison citizens indefinitely in wartime–whether or not a probability of treason had been established by means less than jury trial–was confirmed by three cases decided during and immediately after the War of 1812. In the first, In re Stacy, 10 Johns. *328 (N. Y. 1813), a citizen was taken into military custody on suspicion that he was “carrying provisions and giving information to the enemy.” Id., at *330 (emphasis deleted). Stacy petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, and, after the defendant custodian attempted to avoid complying, Chief Justice Kent ordered attachment against him. Kent noted that the military was “without any color of authority in any military tribunal to try a citizen for that crime” and that it was “holding him in the closest confinement, and contemning the civil authority of the state.” Id., at *333—*334.

Two other cases, later cited with approval by this Court in Ex parte Milligan, 4 Wall. 2, 128—129 (1866), upheld verdicts for false imprisonment against military officers. In Smith v. Shaw, 12 Johns. *257 (N. Y. 1815), the court affirmed an award of damages for detention of a citizen on suspicion that he was, among other things, “an enemy’s spy in time of war.” Id., at *265. The court held that “[n]one of the offences charged against Shaw were cognizable by a court-martial, except that which related to his being a spy; and if he was an American citizen, he could not be charged with such an offence. He might be amenable to the civil authority for treason; but could not be punished, under martial law, as a spy.” Ibid. “If the defendant was justifiable in doing what he did, every citizen of the United States would, in time of war, be equally exposed to a like exercise of military power and authority.” Id., at *266. Finally, in M’Connell v. Hampton, 12 Johns. *234 (N. Y. 1815), a jury awarded $9,000 for false imprisonment after a military officer confined a citizen on charges of treason; the judges on appeal did not question the verdict but found the damages excessive, in part because “it does not appear that [the defendant] … knew [the plaintiff] was a citizen.” Id., at *238 (Spencer, J.). See generally Wuerth, The President’s Power to Detain “Enemy Combatants”: Modern Lessons from Mr. Madison’s Forgotten War, 98 Nw. U. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2004) (available in Clerk of Court’s case file).

President Lincoln, when he purported to suspend habeas corpus without congressional authorization during the Civil War, apparently did not doubt that suspension was required if the prisoner was to be held without criminal trial. In his famous message to Congress on July 4, 1861, he argued only that he could suspend the writ, not that even without suspension, his imprisonment of citizens without criminal trial was permitted. See Special Session Message, 6 Messages and Papers 20—31.

Further evidence comes from this Court’s decision in Ex parte Milligan, supra. There, the Court issued the writ to an American citizen who had been tried by military commission for offenses that included conspiring to overthrow the Government, seize munitions, and liberate prisoners of war. Id., at 6—7. The Court rejected in no uncertain terms the Government’s assertion that military jurisdiction was proper “under the ‘laws and usages of war,’ id., at 121:

“It can serve no useful purpose to inquire what those laws and usages are, whence they originated, where found, and on whom they operate; they can never be applied to citizens in states which have upheld the authority of the government, and where the courts are open and their process unobstructed.” Ibid.1

Milligan is not exactly this case, of course, since the petitioner was threatened with death, not merely imprisonment. But the reasoning and conclusion of Milligan logically cover the present case. The Government justifies imprisonment of Hamdi on principles of the law of war and admits that, absent the war, it would have no such authority. But if the law of war cannot be applied to citizens where courts are open, then Hamdi’s imprisonment without criminal trial is no less unlawful than Milligan’s trial by military tribunal.

Milligan responded to the argument, repeated by the Government in this case, that it is dangerous to leave suspected traitors at large in time of war:

“If it was dangerous, in the distracted condition of affairs, to leave Milligan unrestrained of his liberty, because he ‘conspired against the government, afforded aid and comfort to rebels, and incited the people to insurrection,’ the law said arrest him, confine him closely, render him powerless to do further mischief; and then present his case to the grand jury of the district, with proofs of his guilt, and, if indicted, try him according to the course of the common law. If this had been done, the Constitution would have been vindicated, the law of 1863 enforced, and the securities for personal liberty preserved and defended.” Id., at 122.

Thus, criminal process was viewed as the primary means–and the only means absent congressional action suspending the writ–not only to punish traitors, but to incapacitate them.

The proposition that the Executive lacks indefinite wartime detention authority over citizens is consistent with the Founders’ general mistrust of military power permanently at the Executive’s disposal. In the Founders’ view, the “blessings of liberty” were threatened by “those military establishments which must gradually poison its very fountain.” The Federalist No. 45, p. 238 (J. Madison). No fewer than 10 issues of the Federalist were devoted in whole or part to allaying fears of oppression from the proposed Constitution’s authorization of standing armies in peacetime. Many safeguards in the Constitution reflect these concerns. Congress’s authority “[t]o raise and support Armies” was hedged with the proviso that “no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” U.S. Const., Art. 1, §8, cl. 12. Except for the actual command of military forces, all authorization for their maintenance and all explicit authorization for their use is placed in the control of Congress under Article I, rather than the President under Article II. As Hamilton explained, the President’s military authority would be “much inferior” to that of the British King:

“It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral of the confederacy: while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war, and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies; all which, by the constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.” The Federalist No. 69, p. 357.

A view of the Constitution that gives the Executive authority to use military force rather than the force of law against citizens on American soil flies in the face of the mistrust that engendered these provisions.


The Government argues that our more recent jurisprudence ratifies its indefinite imprisonment of a citizen within the territorial jurisdiction of federal courts. It places primary reliance upon Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942), a World War II case upholding the trial by military commission of eight German saboteurs, one of whom, Hans Haupt, was a U.S. citizen. The case was not this Court’s finest hour. The Court upheld the commission and denied relief in a brief per curiam issued the day after oral argument concluded, see id., at 18—19, unnumbered note; a week later the Government carried out the commission’s death sentence upon six saboteurs, including Haupt. The Court eventually explained its reasoning in a written opinion issued several months later.

Only three paragraphs of the Court’s lengthy opinion dealt with the particular circumstances of Haupt’s case. See id., at 37—38, 45—46. The Government argued that Haupt, like the other petitioners, could be tried by military commission under the laws of war. In agreeing with that contention, Quirin purported to interpret the language of Milligan quoted above (the law of war “can never be applied to citizens in states which have upheld the authority of the government, and where the courts are open and their process unobstructed”) in the following manner:

“Elsewhere in its opinion … the Court was at pains to point out that Milligan, a citizen twenty years resident in Indiana, who had never been a resident of any of the states in rebellion, was not an enemy belligerent either entitled to the status of a prisoner of war or subject to the penalties imposed upon unlawful belligerents. We construe the Court’s statement as to the inapplicability of the law of war to Milligan’s case as having particular reference to the facts before it. From them the Court concluded that Milligan, not being a part of or associated with the armed forces of the enemy, was a non-belligerent, not subject to the law of war … .” 317 U.S., at 45.

In my view this seeks to revise Milligan rather than describe it. Milligan had involved (among other issues) two separate questions: (1) whether the military trial of Milligan was justified by the laws of war, and if not (2) whether the President’s suspension of the writ, pursuant to congressional authorization, prevented the issuance of habeas corpus. The Court’s categorical language about the law of war’s inapplicability to citizens where the courts are open (with no exception mentioned for citizens who were prisoners of war) was contained in its discussion of the first point. See 4 Wall., at 121. The factors pertaining to whether Milligan could reasonably be considered a belligerent and prisoner of war, while mentioned earlier in the opinion, see id., at 118, were made relevant and brought to bear in the Court’s later discussion, see id., at 131, of whether Milligan came within the statutory provision that effectively made an exception to Congress’s authorized suspension of the writ for (as the Court described it) “all parties, not prisoners of war, resident in their respective jurisdictions, … who were citizens of states in which the administration of the laws in the Federal tribunals was unimpaired,” id., at 116. Milligan thus understood was in accord with the traditional law of habeas corpus I have described: Though treason often occurred in wartime, there was, absent provision for special treatment in a congressional suspension of the writ, no exception to the right to trial by jury for citizens who could be called “belligerents” or “prisoners of war.”2

But even if Quirin gave a correct description of Milligan, or made an irrevocable revision of it, Quirin would still not justify denial of the writ here. In Quirin it was uncontested that the petitioners were members of enemy forces. They were “admitted enemy invaders,” 317 U.S., at 47 (emphasis added), and it was “undisputed” that they had landed in the United States in service of German forces, id., at 20. The specific holding of the Court was only that, “upon the conceded facts,” the petitioners were “plainly within [the] boundaries” of military jurisdiction, id., at 46 (emphasis added).3 But where those jurisdictional facts are not conceded–where the petitioner insists that he is not a belligerent–Quirin left the pre-existing law in place: Absent suspension of the writ, a citizen held where the courts are open is entitled either to criminal trial or to a judicial decree requiring his release.4


It follows from what I have said that Hamdi is entitled to a habeas decree requiring his release unless (1) criminal proceedings are promptly brought, or (2) Congress has suspended the writ of habeas corpus. A suspension of the writ could, of course, lay down conditions for continued detention, similar to those that today’s opinion prescribes under the Due Process Clause. Cf. Act of Mar. 3, 1863, 12 Stat. 755. But there is a world of difference between the people’s representatives’ determining the need for that suspension (and prescribing the conditions for it), and this Court’s doing so.

The plurality finds justification for Hamdi’s imprisonment in the Authorization for Use of Military Force, 115 Stat. 224, which provides:

“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” §2(a).

This is not remotely a congressional suspension of the writ, and no one claims that it is. Contrary to the plurality’s view, I do not think this statute even authorizes detention of a citizen with the clarity necessary to satisfy the interpretive canon that statutes should be construed so as to avoid grave constitutional concerns, see Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building & Constr. Trades Council, 485 U.S. 568, 575 (1988); with the clarity necessary to comport with cases such as Ex parte Endo, 323 U.S. 283, 300 (1944), and Duncan v. Kahanamoku, 327 U.S. 304, 314—316, 324 (1946); or with the clarity necessary to overcome the statutory prescription that “[n]o citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress.” 18 U.S.C. § 4001(a).5 But even if it did, I would not permit it to overcome Hamdi’s entitlement to habeas corpus relief. The Suspension Clause of the Constitution, which carefully circumscribes the conditions under which the writ can be withheld, would be a sham if it could be evaded by congressional prescription of requirements other than the common-law requirement of committal for criminal prosecution that render the writ, though available, unavailing. If the Suspension Clause does not guarantee the citizen that he will either be tried or released, unless the conditions for suspending the writ exist and the grave action of suspending the writ has been taken; if it merely guarantees the citizen that he will not be detained unless Congress by ordinary legislation says he can be detained; it guarantees him very little indeed.

It should not be thought, however, that the plurality’s evisceration of the Suspension Clause augments, principally, the power of Congress. As usual, the major effect of its constitutional improvisation is to increase the power of the Court. Having found a congressional authorization for detention of citizens where none clearly exists; and having discarded the categorical procedural protection of the Suspension Clause; the plurality then proceeds, under the guise of the Due Process Clause, to prescribe what procedural protections it thinks appropriate. It “weigh[s] the private interest … against the Government’s asserted interest,” ante, at 22 (internal quotation marks omitted), and–just as though writing a new Constitution–comes up with an unheard-of system in which the citizen rather than the Government bears the burden of proof, testimony is by hearsay rather than live witnesses, and the presiding officer may well be a “neutral” military officer rather than judge and jury. See ante, at 26—27. It claims authority to engage in this sort of “judicious balancing” from Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), a case involving … the withdrawal of disability benefits! Whatever the merits of this technique when newly recognized property rights are at issue (and even there they are questionable), it has no place where the Constitution and the common law already supply an answer.

Having distorted the Suspension Clause, the plurality finishes up by transmogrifying the Great Writ–disposing of the present habeas petition by remanding for the District Court to “engag[e] in a factfinding process that is both prudent and incremental,” ante, at 32. “In the absence of [the Executive’s prior provision of procedures that satisfy due process], … a court that receives a petition for a writ of habeas corpus from an alleged enemy combatant must itself ensure that the minimum requirements of due process are achieved.” Ante, at 31—32. This judicial remediation of executive default is unheard of. The role of habeas corpus is to determine the legality of executive detention, not to supply the omitted process necessary to make it legal. See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 484 (1973) (“[T]he essence of habeas corpus is an attack by a person in custody upon the legality of that custody, and … the traditional function of the writ is to secure release from illegal custody”); 1 Blackstone 132—133. It is not the habeas court’s function to make illegal detention legal by supplying a process that the Government could have provided, but chose not to. If Hamdi is being imprisoned in violation of the Constitution (because without due process of law), then his habeas petition should be granted; the Executive may then hand him over to the criminal authorities, whose detention for the purpose of prosecution will be lawful, or else must release him.

There is a certain harmony of approach in the plurality’s making up for Congress’s failure to invoke the Suspension Clause and its making up for the Executive’s failure to apply what it says are needed procedures–an approach that reflects what might be called a Mr. Fix-it Mentality. The plurality seems to view it as its mission to Make Everything Come Out Right, rather than merely to decree the consequences, as far as individual rights are concerned, of the other two branches’ actions and omissions. Has the Legislature failed to suspend the writ in the current dire emergency? Well, we will remedy that failure by prescribing the reasonable conditions that a suspension should have included. And has the Executive failed to live up to those reasonable conditions? Well, we will ourselves make that failure good, so that this dangerous fellow (if he is dangerous) need not be set free. The problem with this approach is not only that it steps out of the courts’ modest and limited role in a democratic society; but that by repeatedly doing what it thinks the political branches ought to do it encourages their lassitude and saps the vitality of government by the people.


Several limitations give my views in this matter a relatively narrow compass. They apply only to citizens, accused of being enemy combatants, who are detained within the territorial jurisdiction of a federal court. This is not likely to be a numerous group; currently we know of only two, Hamdi and Jose Padilla. Where the citizen is captured outside and held outside the United States, the constitutional requirements may be different. Cf. Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763, 769—771 (1950); Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 74—75 (1957) (Harlan, J., concurring in result); Rasul v. Bush, ante, at 15—17 (Scalia, J., dissenting). Moreover, even within the United States, the accused citizen-enemy combatant may lawfully be detained once prosecution is in progress or in contemplation. See, e.g., County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991) (brief detention pending judicial determination after warrantless arrest); United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987) (pretrial detention under the Bail Reform Act). The Government has been notably successful in securing conviction, and hence long-term custody or execution, of those who have waged war against the state.

I frankly do not know whether these tools are sufficient to meet the Government’s security needs, including the need to obtain intelligence through interrogation. It is far beyond my competence, or the Court’s competence, to determine that. But it is not beyond Congress’s. If the situation demands it, the Executive can ask Congress to authorize suspension of the writ–which can be made subject to whatever conditions Congress deems appropriate, including even the procedural novelties invented by the plurality today. To be sure, suspension is limited by the Constitution to cases of rebellion or invasion. But whether the attacks of September 11, 2001, constitute an “invasion,” and whether those attacks still justify suspension several years later, are questions for Congress rather than this Court. See 3 Story §1336, at 208—209.6 If civil rights are to be curtailed during wartime, it must be done openly and democratically, as the Constitution requires, rather than by silent erosion through an opinion of this Court.

* * *

The Founders well understood the difficult tradeoff between safety and freedom. “Safety from external danger,” Hamilton declared,

“is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war; the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free.” The Federalist No. 8, p. 33.

The Founders warned us about the risk, and equipped us with a Constitution designed to deal with it.

Many think it not only inevitable but entirely proper that liberty give way to security in times of national crisis–that, at the extremes of military exigency, inter arma silent leges. Whatever the general merits of the view that war silences law or modulates its voice, that view has no place in the interpretation and application of a Constitution designed precisely to confront war and, in a manner that accords with democratic principles, to accommodate it. Because the Court has proceeded to meet the current emergency in a manner the Constitution does not envision, I respectfully dissent.


1. As I shall discuss presently, see infra, at 17—19, the Court purported to limit this language in Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 45 (1942). Whatever Quirin’s effect on Milligan’s precedential value, however, it cannot undermine its value as an indicator of original meaning. Cf. Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 30 (1957) (plurality opinion) (Milligan remains “one of the great landmarks in this Court’s history”).

2. Without bothering to respond to this analysis, the plurality states that Milligan “turned in large part” upon the defendant’s lack of prisoner-of-war status, and that the Milligan Court explicitly and repeatedly said so. See ante, at 14. Neither is true. To the extent, however, that prisoner-of-war status was relevant in Milligan, it was only because prisoners of war received different statutory treatment under the conditional suspension then in effect.

3. The only two Court of Appeals cases from World War II cited by the Government in which citizens were detained without trial likewise involved petitioners who were conceded to have been members of enemy forces. See In re Territo, 156 F.2d 142, 143—145 (CA9 1946); Colepaugh v. Looney, 235 F.2d 429, 432 (CA10 1956). The plurality complains that Territo is the only case I have identified in which “a United States citizen [was] captured in a foreign combat zone,” ante, at 16. Indeed it is; such cases must surely be rare. But given the constitutional tradition I have described, the burden is not upon me to find cases in which the writ was granted to citizens in this country who had been captured on foreign battlefields; it is upon those who would carve out an exception for such citizens (as the plurality’s complaint suggests it would) to find a single case (other than one where enemy status was admitted) in which habeas was denied.

4. The plurality’s assertion that Quirin somehow “clarifies” Milligan, ante, at 15, is simply false. As I discuss supra, at 17—19, the Quirin Court propounded a mistaken understanding of Milligan; but nonetheless its holding was limited to “the case presented by the present record,” and to “the conceded facts,” and thus avoided conflict with the earlier case. See 317 U.S., at 45—46 (emphasis added). The plurality, ignoring this expressed limitation, thinks it “beside the point” whether belligerency is conceded or found “by some other process” (not necessarily a jury trial) “that verifies this fact with sufficient certainty.” Ante, at 16. But the whole point of the procedural guarantees in the Bill of Rights is to limit the methods by which the Government can determine facts that the citizen disputes and on which the citizen’s liberty depends. The plurality’s claim that Quirin’s one-paragraph discussion of Milligan provides a “[c]lear . . . disavowal” of two false imprisonment cases from the War of 1812, ante, at 15, thus defies logic; unlike the plaintiffs in those cases, Haupt was concededly a member of an enemy force. The Government also cites Moyer v. Peabody, 212 U.S. 78 (1909), a suit for damages against the Governor of Colorado, for violation of due process in detaining the alleged ringleader of a rebellion quelled by the state militia after the Governor’s declaration of a state of insurrection and (he contended) suspension of the writ “as incident thereto.” Ex parte Moyer, 35 Colo. 154, 157, 91 P. 738, 740 (1905). But the holding of Moyer v. Peabody (even assuming it is transferable from state-militia detention after state suspension to federal standing-army detention without suspension) is simply that “[s]o long as such arrests [were] made in good faith and in the honest belief that they [were] needed in order to head the insurrection off,” 212 U.S., at 85, an action in damages could not lie. This “good-faith” analysis is a forebear of our modern doctrine of qualified immunity. Cf. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 247—248 (1974) (understanding Moyer in this way). Moreover, the detention at issue in Moyer lasted about two and a half months, see 212 U.S., at 85, roughly the length of time permissible under the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act, see supra, at 4—5. In addition to Moyer v. Peabody, Justice Thomas relies upon Luther v. Borden, 7 How. 1 (1849), a case in which the state legislature had imposed martial law–a step even more drastic than suspension of the writ. See post, at 13—14 (dissenting opinion). But martial law has not been imposed here, and in any case is limited to “the theatre of active military operations, where war really prevails,” and where therefore the courts are closed. Ex parte Milligan, 4 Wall. 2, 127 (1866); see also id., at 129—130 (distinguishing Luther).

5. The plurality rejects any need for “specific language of detention” on the ground that detention of alleged combatants is a “fundamental incident of waging war.” Ante, at 12. Its authorities do not support that holding in the context of the present case. Some are irrelevant because they do not address the detention of American citizens. E.g., Naqvi, Doubtful Prisoner-of-War Status, 84 Int’l Rev. Red Cross 571, 572 (2002). The plurality’s assertion that detentions of citizen and alien combatants are equally authorized has no basis in law or common sense. Citizens and noncitizens, even if equally dangerous, are not similarly situated. See, e.g., Milligan, supra; Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763 (1950); Rev. Stat. 4067, 50 U.S.C. § 21 (Alien Enemy Act). That captivity may be consistent with the principles of international law does not prove that it also complies with the restrictions that the Constitution places on the American Government’s treatment of its own citizens. Of the authorities cited by the plurality that do deal with detention of citizens, Quirin and Territo have already been discussed and rejected. See supra, at 19—20, and n. 3. The remaining authorities pertain to U.S. detention of citizens during the Civil War, and are irrelevant for two reasons: (1) the Lieber Code was issued following a congressional authorization of suspension of the writ, see Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, Gen. Order No. 100 (1863), reprinted in 2 Lieber, Miscellaneous Writings, p. 246; Act of Mar. 3, 1863, 12 Stat. 755, §§1, 2; and (2) citizens of the Confederacy, while citizens of the United States, were also regarded as citizens of a hostile power.

6. Justice Thomas worries that the constitutional conditions for suspension of the writ will not exist “during many … emergencies during which … detention authority might be necessary,” post, at 16. It is difficult to imagine situations in which security is so seriously threatened as to justify indefinite imprisonment without trial, and yet the constitutional conditions of rebellion or invasion are not met.