By Robert Barnes Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; 11:38 AM
The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a major separation of powers case that would have determined what rights judges have to free detainees at Guantanamo Bay who have been found not to be enemy combatants.
The justices, without recorded dissent, agreed with the Obama administration that changed circumstances meant that the challenge brought by a group of Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs was not ripe for the court’s consideration.
At the same time, the justices wiped out a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that had been challenged by attorneys for the detainees. The ruling said that the judicial branch had no power to release into the United States detainees who had been cleared of wrongdoing who cannot be returned to their home countries for fear of persecution.
The Obama administration has been working to find a neutral country to accept the Uighurs and thus avoid another showdown at the Supreme Court on detainee rights. It recently persuaded Switzerland to take two of the men, and said the others had been offered, but turned down, the chance to go to the island nation of Palau.
The court was convinced.
“Each of the detainees at issue in this case has received at least one offer of resettlement in another country,” the court said in an unsigned, three-paragraph order. “Most of the detainees have accepted an offer of resettlement; five detainees, however, have rejected two such offers and are still being held at Guantanamo Bay.”
It said that set of facts changed the basic issue that the lower courts considered. “No court has yet ruled in this case in light of the new facts, and we decline to be the first to do so,” the order said.
The Uighurs were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001, but both the Bush and Obama administrations have agreed it was a mistake, and concluded that the men pose no threat to the United States. However, the Uighurs are considered terrorists by the Chinese government and risk persecution if they return to China.
A federal judge ruled that, if there were no place else to go, the men could be released into this country. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overruled Judge Ricardo M. Urbina’s decision, saying only the legislative and executive branches had the power to exclude or admit foreigners to the country.
The case followed the court’s 2008 decision that Guantanamo detainees had the right to prove to a federal judge that they were being unlawfully held as enemy combatants. The Uighur case would have provided a logical next step, determining what powers a judge has to release such a person, especially when sending him back to his home country is not an option.
Attorneys for the Uighurs urged the court not to dismiss the case, saying it would only be delaying an inevitable decision. But they also had asked that if the court decided not to hear the case because of the changed circumstances, it should also vacate the circuit court’s decision so that it did not stand as precedent.