Hamlily v. Obama (major opinion partially accepting and partially rejecting the revised

May 19, 2009

* Hamlily v. Obama (D.D.C. May 19, 2009) (Judge Bates recognizes a relatively limited degree of detention authority in the GTMO habeas cases)

Judge Bates, fresh from becoming the new chief of the FISA Court, today issued an important decision that partially accepts and partially rejects the Obama administration’s recently-revised definition of its military detention authority vis-à-vis the GTMO detainees.  Specifically, Judge Bates holds that detention authority includes those who are functional members of AQ, the Taliban, and co-belligerent groups, as well as those others who directly participate in hostilities.  It does not include, however, those who provide support to these groups separate and apart from membership, or those who provide support to hostile acts separate and apart from direct participation.

Below I provide the conclusion of his opinion, and then an outline of his rationale:


After careful consideration, the Court is satisfied that the government’s detention authority is generally consistent with the authority conferred upon the President by the AUMF and the core law of war principles that govern non-international armed conflicts. In those instances where the government’s framework has exceeded that which is permitted by the law of war – specifically with respect to the concept of “support” — the Court rejects such bases for detention. Therefore, the Court concludes that under the AUMF the President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who are or were part of Taliban or al Qaeda forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed (i.e., directly participated in) a belligerent act in aid of such enemy armed forces.” (p. 21)


1. Background:

– The question presented: what is the scope of detention authority under the AUMF, as informed by the law of war? (p.1)

– The judiciary owes some degree of deference to the executive in matters relating to foreign affairs. (p.6-7) [Note that Judge Bates here cites the dueling law review articles on this topic by Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein, on one hand, and Derek Jinks and Neal Katyal on the other.  And they say judges don’t read law review articles anymore…]

2. Summary of the holding:

The court “rejects the concept of “substantial support” as an independent basis for detention. Likewise, the Court finds that “directly support[ing] hostilities” is not a proper basis for detention. In short, the Court can find no authority in domestic law or the law of war, nor can the government point to any, to justify the concept of “support” as a valid ground for detention. The Court does not accept the government’s position in full, then, even given the deference accorded to the Executive in this realm, because it is ultimately the province of the courts to say “what the law is,” Marbury v.Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803), and in this context that means identifying the “permissible bounds” of the Executive’s detention authority, Hamdi, 542 U.S. at 522 n.1. Detention based on substantial or direct support of the Taliban, al Qaeda or associated forces, without more, is simply not warranted by domestic law or the law of war. With the exception of these two “support”-based elements, however, the Court will adopt the government’s proposed framework, largely for the reasons explained in Gherebi. The AUMF and the law of war do authorize the government to detain those who are “part of” the “Taliban or al Qaida forces.”  (p. 7)

3. Explanation of the holding:

a. The AUMF: The AUMF, as a matter of domestic law, grants detention authority with respect to the members of the organizations it covers. (p. 10-12)

b. Construing the AUMF in light of the laws of war: The next question is whether this grant of authority is compatible with the law of war, given the detainees argument that there are no combatants and hence no status-based detention in non-international armed conflict.  (p. 12)  The petitioners argued instead for detention being limited to those who directly participated in hostilities (DPH), and they argued that DPH should be construed narrowly (though the court noted that their own expert appeared to support a broader formulation of DPH).  (p. 12)

c. Detention authority in non-international armed conflict: The court accepted that the relationship between the US and AQ is best described as a non-international armed conflict and that there is no “combatant” status in NIAC, but nonetheless rejected the argument that this compels the conclusion that all detainees must then be categorizes as “civilians.”  (P.13)  The court noted that Common Article 3 itself refers to protections for “members of armed forces who have laid down their weapons,” and that AP II provides certain protections specifically directed toward the “civilian” population (implying the existence of non-civilians, according to the court).  (p.14)  Judge Bates then cited a pair of ICTY decisions in support of this view. (p. 14-15)  [As to customary law, interestingly, the court observes that “candidly” this is an open question.]

d. The meaning of associated forces” – the court concludes that the AUMF extends beyond AQ and the Taliban to “associated forces,” which it defined in terms of co-belligerent status.  (p.16).  The court also noted, however, that “”Associated forces” do not include terrorist organizations who merely share an abstract philosophy or even a common purpose with al Qaeda — there must be an actual association in the current conflict with al Qaeda or the Taliban.” (p. 16 n. 17)

e. Who counts as a member or part of a covered group? The court declined to offer a comprehensive test, saying there are “no settled criteria,” that the decision must be individualized, and that the analysis should be “more functional than formal.” (p. 17)  The key, following the earlier decision of Judge Walton in Gherebi, is not self-identification as a member but, instead, “whether the individual functions or participates within or under the command structure of the organization — i.e., whether he receives and executes orders or directions.” (p. 17)

f. “Support” for a covered group as a ground for detention: The opinion states that the government provided no argument to explain how the laws of war support use of a “support” criterion as a basis for detention, other than what the court found to be an unpersuasive effort at oral argument to root the concept in the notion of co-belligerency.  (p. 18)  Judge Bates concludes that the concept instead is an “import” from civilian criminal law. (p. 18-19)  He therefore concludes: “Detaining an individual who “substantially supports” such an organization, but is not part of it, is simply not authorized by the AUMF itself or by the law of war. Hence, the government’s reliance on substantial support” as a basis for detention independent of membership in the Taliban, al Qaeda or an associated force is rejected.” (p. 19)

g. Support for a covered group as evidence of functional membership in the group: Judge Bates went out of his way to observe that evidence of support—particularly recurring support-could constitute evidence that a person as a functional matter is part of AQ, the Taliban, etc., even if they would not self-identify as such. (p.19-20).

h. Support for hostilities as a ground for detention: Citing the same rational provided above, Judge Bates also rejected the proposition that supporting hostile acts can provide a basis for detention. (p. 20)

i. Committing a belligerent act as a ground for detention: Judge Bates concluded that detention authority does extend to persons who commit belligerent acts, a category he defined with reference to the DPH concept.  (p. 20)  He did not attempt to define the outer parameters of DPH, but did note that the ICRC is engaged in an attempt to do just that, and observed that the outer bounds will be determined as needed in the habeas context on a case-by-case basis.  (p. 21)

Detainee litigation continues to put pressure on the administration to make detention

January 23, 2009

* Detainee litigation continues to put pressure on the administration to make detention policy decisions now rather than in 6 months

First, an update on the # of GTMO detainees.  It appears the correct current count is 242.  See here, thanks to the most up-to-date data developed by Ben Wittes and the folks at Brookings.

Second, a flurry of opinions and orders by district judges dealing with detainee litigation suggests that the Task Force(s) created by yesterday’s executive orders had better work much faster than their 6-month schedule would otherwise allow.  The litigation docket will force hard decisions soon in these and related cases, barring a willingness by these judges (or the detainees) to let the habeas process pause for half a year while the issues are sorted out:

Hamlily v. Obama (D.D.C.) (GTMO); Maqalah v. Gates (D.D.C.) (Bagram)

Notwithstanding yesterday’s executive orders, and notwithstanding the fact that the Obama administration has moved successfully to stay GTMO habeas proceedings at least momentarily before one of the judges handling GTMO habeas petitions, other proceedings continue forward, and in doing so they pressure the administration to make tough decisions now regarding the scope of the military detention authority it may wish to defend, rather than waiting for the completion of the “task force” reviews contemplated in yesterday’s orders. Read the rest of this entry »