WASHINGTON — Thursday's Supreme Court ruling that Guantanamo detainees have a constitutional right to challenge their status in U.S. civilian courts is a blow to Republican presidential candidate John McCain and a vindication for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
That was underscored by the rivals' reactions to the 5-4 opinion.
"It obviously concerns me," McCain said.
Obama applauded the ruling, saying it was a repudiation of "yet another failed policy supported by John McCain."
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Although both senators have opposed the use of torture in military interrogations of detainees and advocated closing the Guantanamo Bay facility, they've taken different stances when it comes to detainees' legal rights.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who survived torture, helped shape the Military Commissions Act of 2006. It established a military-commission trial system as an alternative to civilian courts and said that federal courts couldn't consider habeas corpus petitions of detainees at Guantanamo; that is, detainees couldn't challenge in U.S. civilian courts the grounds on which they were being held.
McCain voted for it and Obama voted against it.
The high court struck down that legislation Thursday.
One of Obama's campaign-speech lines has been that if he's elected president, "I will restore habeas corpus" to detainees.
Obama, who has a law degree and taught constitutional law, said Thursday's opinion undercut President Bush's views on executive power, raised questions about McCain's judgment and was "an important step toward re-establishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus."
"Our courts have employed habeas corpus with rigor and fairness for more than two centuries, and we must continue to do so as we defend the freedom that violent extremists seek to destroy," he said.
McCain commented briefly on the subject at a news conference in Boston, saying he'd just learned of the opinion and hadn't yet read it, but that "it obviously concerns me. These are unlawful combatants. They are not American citizens."
He said that Chief Justice John G. Roberts' dissent was worthy of attention, but that nevertheless the majority opinion was "a decision the Supreme Court has made" and that "now we have to move forward."
Neither candidate elaborated immediately on what he thought should happen next with detainees at Guantanamo or those at legally murkier U.S. facilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere, or what he sees as the role of the next president in shaping those decisions.
John Hutson, the president and dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire and a former Navy rear admiral and judge advocate general who testifies before Congress on detainee issues, said it could be a big issue for Bush's successor.
"If they (detainees) get into court and it's found there is no legitimate evidence, then we're going to have to release them, I think," he said. "It's implicit in the concept of habeas corpus; you can't just hold them indefinitely. I think that is the necessary extension of it. Now they're really going to have to figure out what to do with them."