March 6th, 2009
03:07 PM ET
11 years ago

High court win for White House on enemy combatant appeal

[cnn-photo-caption image=
caption="al-Marri's appeal was dismissed Friday."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Supreme Court has granted the Obama administration's request to dismiss the pending appeal of an accused enemy combatant held on U.S. soil.

The decision "to dismiss the appeal as moot" came in a brief order from the nine justices issued Friday.

Ali al-Marri has been held in military custody since 2003, and was challenging the president's unilateral authority to detain him indefinitely and without charges. The court's order is a defeat for him on the larger constitutional issue.

But the Qatari man was indicted last week on federal conspiracy charges and President Barack Obama wanted him transferred to civilian custody immediately, and to have the pending high court case thrown out.

No explanation was given by the high court, which had the option of going ahead with oral arguments as scheduled in late April.

The ruling means the larger constitutional issue of the president's power to detain accused terrorists and other criminals in the United States will remain unresolved.

The justices also approved the transfer of al-Marri's custody from military to civilian custody. There was no immediate indication when that transfer would occur.

The decision by the Obama administration to criminally charge al-Marri after he spent seven years in custody - more than five years in virtual isolation in a Navy brig in North Charleston, South Carolina - is the latest twist in the ongoing legal saga of the only remaining "enemy combatant" held in the United States.

He had been accused of being an al Qaeda "sleeper agent." - but until this indictment had never been charged with a criminal or terrorism-related offense.

The 43-year-old man will be sent at some point to Peoria, Illinois, to face a criminal trial.

Obama last month ordered a prompt and thorough review of the "factual and legal basis" for the continued detention of al-Marri.

He subsequently issued a presidential memorandum ordering Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to facilitate al-Marri's transfer, calling it "in the interest of the United States."

Since his initial arrest on credit card fraud charges in December 2001, al-Marri - a legal resident of the United States - has remained in "virtual isolation in the brig," his attorneys said. They were suing the government to improve his jail conditions and are challenging the constitutionality of his detention.

They said his cell at the U.S. Consolidated Navy Brig in North Charleston, South Carolina, is only 9 feet by 6 feet, and until recently, was allowed little contact with the outside world, including his family.

Military officials deny any mistreatment.

Al-Marri's lawyer expressed some disappointment in the decision.

"While we would have preferred a Supreme Court ruling that U.S. citizens and lawful residents detained in the U.S. cannot be held in military custody as 'enemy combatants' without charges or trial, the Supreme Court nonetheless took an important step today by vacating a lower court decision that had upheld the Bush administration's authority to designate al-Marri as an 'enemy combatant,'" said Jonathan Hafetz, an ACLU attorney.

"We trust that the Obama administration will not repeat the abuses of the Bush administration, having now chosen to prosecute Mr. al-Marri in federal court rather than defend the Bush administration's actions in this case."

The case posed a sticky legal dilemma for the high court and the current and previous administrations.

President George W. Bush ordered al-Marri confined in military custody, and his Justice Department had been filing the appeals opposing his legal claims.

At issue was whether the Authorization for Use of Military Force - passed by Congress after the September 11, 2001, attacks - gave the president the power to order the indefinite military detention of an accused terrorist seized on domestic soil.

Filed under: Obama administration
soundoff (151 Responses)
  1. Karen

    To Jon in CA: turning him over to civilian authorities will get him the "time table" you mentioned. That's what the Constitution mandates.

    March 7, 2009 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
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