Skip to comments.Military Tribunals: Constitutional, Legal and Just
Posted on 11/27/2001 3:25:05 PM PST by Jean S
Critics of Bush's Executive Order Ignore Constitution, History, Law and Justice
Military Tribunals: Constitutional, Legal and Just
By Terence P. Jeffrey
The Week of November 26, 2001
President Bush signed an executive order November 13 authorizing military tribunalsrather than civilian courtsto try foreign terrorists accused of attacking the United States.
The order does not apply to U.S. citizens.
Liberals and conservatives alike have attacked this order, alleging it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.
But President Bushs directive not only is good policy, it is also good law. It is good policy because it logically follows through on the sound decision, made by Congress, to formally authorize a war against the September 11 terrorists and to treat these terrorists as foreign enemies rather than domestic criminals. It is good law because it keeps faith with the express language and intent of the Constitution, 200 years of congressional legislation, and centuries of common law practice embedded in the unchanging principles of natural law.
When did the U.S. begin using military tribunals, rather than civilian courts, to try unlawful combatants?
The U.S. began using military tribunals, rather than civilian courts, to try unlawful combatants during the Revolutionary War.
In keeping with longstanding British practice and the laws of war recognized by civilized nations, George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, routinely employed such tribunals. In the most famous instance, he signed the death warrant for Maj. John André, the young British officer who conspired with Benedict Arnold.
In 1780, a U.S. patrol intercepted André, wearing civilian clothes, near the Hudson River. In his shoe, André carried handwritten notes from Arnold instructing British forces how to kill or capture the 3,086 U.S. troops upriver from New York City.
Washington handed André over to a "Board of General Officers" to be tried. This tribunals swiftly determined that: "Major André . . . ought to be considered a spy from the enemy, and that, agreeably to the law and usage of nations . . . he ought to suffer death."
André abjectly pleaded with Washington. He did not ask for his life to be spared. He asked, instead, that he be shota gentlemans deathrather than hungthe ignominious penalty accorded a spy.
"Buoyed above the terror of death by the consciousness of a life devoted to honorable pursuits and stained with no action that can give me remorse, I trust that the request I make to your Excellency at this serious period, which is to soften my last moments, will not be rejected," André wrote to Washington. "Sympathy toward a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adapt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honor."
Washington would have none of it. He sent word to the British Gen. Henry Clinton that he was willing to trade André for Arnoldso he could hang Arnold insteadbut that, barring a trade, he would hang André as a spy. Clinton did not deal; Washington did not hesitate. André swung from the gallows on Oct. 2, 1780.
Did ratification of the Constitution override the "law of nations," and replace military tribunals with civilian courts?
No. The Constitution explicitly incorporates the "law of nations" into the basic law of the United States.
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 10 states: "Congress shall have power . . . To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations."
What does the constitutional phrase "law of nations" mean?
The phrase "law of nations" refers to that part of the absolute moral lawthe Laws of Nature mentioned in the Declaration of Independencethat governs relations between nations, and between nations and other external forces such as pirates and terrorists.
James Wilson, a Philadelphia lawyer, signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. George Washington appointed him to the first Supreme Court. In 1791, in a lecture, he explained the term "law of nations":
"The law of nature, when applied to states or political societies, receives a new name, that of the law of nations," wrote Wilson. "The law of nations, as well as the law of nature, is of obligation indispensable: the law of nations, as well as the law of nature, is of origin divine."
Wilson specifically cited states and leaders who commit unjust acts of war as violators of the law of nations.
"[T]he conduct of nations has too often been diametrically opposite to the law, by which it ought to have been regulated," wrote Wilson. "In the judgment of some writers, it would seem, for instance, that neither the state which commences an unjust war, nor the chief who conducts it, derogates from the general sanctity of their respective characters. An ardent love of their country they seem to have thought a passion too heroick, to be restrained within the narrow limits of systematick morality; and those have been too often considered as the greatest patriots, who have contributed most to gratify the publick passion for conquest and power. States, as well as monarchs, have too frequently been blinded by ambition. Of this there is scarcely a page in ancient or modern history, relating to national contentions, but will furnish the most glaring proofs. The melancholy truth is, that the law of nations, though founded on the most solid principles of natural obligation, has been but imperfectly viewed in theory, and has been too much disregarded in practice. . . .
"The law of nations, properly so called, is the law of states and sovereigns, obligatory upon them in the same manner, and for the same reasons, as the law of nature is obligatory on individuals. Universal, indispensable, and unchangeable is the obligation of both."
Is it possible the Framers did not understand they were giving Congress power to create military tribunals to try spies, pirates and the like when they incorporated the "law of nations" into the Constitution?
No. George Washington, who personally approved the military death sentences of Major André and other British spies and saboteurs, presided over the Constitutional Convention. Alexander Hamilton, a prime mover at the convention who became co-author of the Federalist papers supporting ratification of the Constitution, was Washingtons military secretary during the Revolution. He personally parried with British negotiators over the fate of André and quite likely handled the paper work dealing with the death sentence Washington approved. Hamiltons chivalrous sensibilities were offended when Washington would not agree to have the British major shot rather than hung, but he lodged no objection to Andrés execution itself.
How did Congress use its constitutional authority to "define and punish . . . offenses against the law of nations"?
Congress has enacted legislation delegating to the President and the U.S. military the power to create military tribunals to try enemies of the United States who violate the "law of nations" and the "law of war." The "law of war" is that part of the law of nations that governs how combatants should behave.
An 1806 act of Congress, signed by President Thomas Jefferson, imposed the death penalty on alien spies "according to the law and usage of nations, by sentence of a general court martial." In its unanimous 1942 decision in Ex Parte Quirin, the Supreme Court said this 1806 law "is a construction of the Constitution which has been followed since the founding of our government. It has not hitherto been challenged, and, so far as we are advised, it has never even been suggested in the very extensive literature of the subject that an alien spy, in time of war, could not be tried by military tribunal without a jury."
Has Congress changed the law since 1806?
Yes. Congress has more completely codified the authority of the Executive Branch in dealing with violations of the law of nations.
In 1862, during the Civil War, Congress amended the law to include "all persons," rather than just aliens, so that U.S. citizens who operated in civilian clothing as Confederate spies and saboteurs, could be tried by military tribunals and executed. For example, a military commission in 1865 ordered the hanging of Robert C. Kennedy, a Confederate Army captain, after he was captured in New York, in civilian clothes, plotting to burn down the city. (The essential difference between Kennedy and al Qaeda terrorists is that Kennedy was an American citizen.)
President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1942 stating that anyone committing sabotage, espionage or other hostile acts on behalf of Americas enemies "shall be subject to the law of war and to the jurisdiction of military tribunals." Roosevelt was authorized to issue this order by congressional statutes, referred to as the "Articles of War," incorporated into Title 10 of the U.S. Code.
Does current law authorize President Bush to create military tribunals to try the September 11 terrorists?
Yes. In his order authorizing military tribunals to try the September 11 terrorists Bush cited the resolution passed by Congress authorizing him to make war against these terrorists and the same Title 10 of the U.S. Code that authorized Roosevelt to use military tribunals to try Nazi saboteurs. Bush specifically cited sections 821 and 836 of Title 10.
Section 818, qualifying section 821 says, "General courts-martial also have jurisdiction to try any person who by the law of war is subject to trial by a military tribunal and may adjudge any punishment permitted by the law of war."
Section 821 says: "The provisions of this chapter conferring jurisdiction upon courts-martial do not deprive military commissions, provost courts, or other military tribunals of concurrent jurisdiction with respect to offenders or offenses that by statute or by the law of war may be tried by military commissions, provost courts or other military tribunals."
Section 836 gives the President exclusive authority to set procedures for such trials: "Pretrial, trial, and post trial procedures, including modes of proof, for cases arising under this chapter triable in courts-martial, military commissions and other military tribunals, and procedures for courts of inquiry, may be prescribed by the President by regulations which shall, so far as he considers practicable, apply the principles of law and rules of evidence generally recognized in the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts, but which may not be contrary to or inconsistent with this chapter."
Will the Supreme Court uphold Bushs order if Osama bin Laden insist on a constitutional test case?
It is impossible to predict what might be done by a Supreme Court that has declared partial-birth abortion a constitutional right and prayer in schools a constitutional wrong. But the courts precedent is emphatic. When eight Nazi saboteurs, sent into the United States by Adolf Hilter, challenged the constitutionality of Roosevelts war commission, the court ruled unanimously for Roosevelt.
In Ex Parte Quirin, the Supreme Court said: "From the very beginning of its history, this court has applied the law of war as including that part of the law of nations which prescribes, for the conduct of war, the status and duties of enemy nations, as well as of enemy individuals. . . . Congress has explicitly provided, so far as it may constitutionally do so, that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenders for offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases. Congress, in addition to making rules for the government of our Armed Forces, has thus exercised its authority to define and punish offenses against the law of nations by sanctioning, within constitutional limitations, the jurisdiction of military commissions to try persons for offenses which, according to the rules and precepts of the law of nations, and more particularly the law of war, are cognizable by such tribunals.
"By his order creating the present commission, he has undertaken to exercise the authority conferred upon him by Congress, and also such authority as the Constitution itself gives the Commander in Chief, to direct the performance of those functions which may constitutionally be performed by the military arm of the nation in time of war."
Do the 5th and 6th Amendments protect a terrorists right to a trial by jury and to compel witnesses?
No. The 5th and 6th Amendments do not have universal application. They expressly exempt, for example, military personnel in time of war or national emergency. "No persons shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury," says the Bill of Rights, "except in cases arising in the land or naval force, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger . . ."
In Ex Parte Quirin, the Supreme Court noted that the 5th and 6th Amendments applied to the trials under Article III, the judicial section of the Constitution, which was intended to guarantee a jury trial only in those circumstances where they already existed under common law, and not to create a new right to jury trials where they did not exist under common law. Under common law, military tribunals, not juries, tried alleged offenses against the "law of nations."
The authority to "define and punish . . . offenses against the law of nations" was vested in the Congress (not the judiciary), as per Article 1, Section 8, Clause 10, and Congress, following common law, delegated that power to military commissions. In 210 years, no Supreme Court has over-ruled this congressional prerogative.
In Quirin, the court thought it absurd that the Framers would have exempted U.S. military personnel from the 5th and 6th amendments in time of war, but not the enemies they were fighting:
"We cannot say that Congress, in preparing the 5th and 6th Amendments, intended to extend trial by jury to cases of alien or citizen offenders against the law of war otherwise triable by military commission, while withholding it from members of our own armed forces charged with infractions of the Articles of War punishable by death.
"It is equally inadmissible to construe the Amendmentswhose primary purpose was to continue unimpaired presentment by grand jury and petit jury in all those cases in which they had been customaryas either abolishing all trial by military tribunals, save those of the personnel of our own armed forces, or, what in effect comes to the same thing, as imposing on all such tribunals the necessity of proceeding against unlawful enemy belligerents only on presentment and trial by jury.
"We conclude that the 5th and 6th Amendments did not restrict whatever authority was conferred by the Constitution to try offenses against the law of war by military commission, and that petitioners, charged with such an offense not required to be tried by jury at common law, were lawfully placed on trial by the Commission without a jury."
But I question whether Bush has the authority to create them by executive order.According to the article (and President Bush himself), Bush has already been given that authority by Congress. They might not have understood the ramifications of what they authorized, but that's their tough luck. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse."
By the way, who would volunteer for "jury duty" for a terrorist trial?
If Congress has granted Bush that power, then they also have the authority to rescind it. If you look at the section of the Constitution regarding suspension of habeous corpus, that resides in the legislative, not the executive. Tribunals should follow the same path.
I would in a NY minute. But, once again, I am not arguing that tribunals are unconstitutional. I instead think that the power to establish them should not reside in the executive - that is an easy springboard towards dictatorship.
Well, I think it proper that Congress exercises oversight over the process. Just as we never get a declaration of war any more, I doubt we'll get a vote on the matter - but Congress still needs to participate in the process so they can establish the authority to rescind tribunals if a future president abuses them. We gotta look past the current crisis and contemplate the types of people (i.e., HRC) who would love to have these powers and no Congressional authority to stop them because Congress abrogated their powers...
Daschle Stalls ANWR and Energy Bill, dead for the year, Nov. 27, Yahoo News.
Terror Panel Loses Support: Daschle Against Creating Committee, Nov. 26- Roll Call.
Daschle Seeks to End Probes of H. Clinton and Torricelli, Nov. 19, Roll Call.
The Daschle Delay, Larry Kudlow's piece on Daschle's economic mischief-making.
Why isn't Daschle's ignoring threats to our nation's security and economy a front page scandal?
Congress is expected to recess in mid-December and return in January. This gives the President very little time to make necessary recess appointments, but of course Daschle knew that.
I don't think GWB is going to do anything to hurt the nation or our civil liberties, and I understand Ashcroft not releasing the names of those who are/could be innocent who are in the middle of this.
The problem is not GWB and Ashcroft, it's if they set a precedent that somewhere down the road gets extended a little further and a little further.
Military Tribunals do have one big problem, the evidence that can be admitted (included hearsay) does not have to hold upto the same standards that civilian courts do - in other words, they could get the wrong people and not know it and then we'd be screwed.
Perkins carried his pro-military tribunal argument very ably, and made the especially compelling point that two crucial pieces of evidence became known to al-Qaeda terrorists as a direct result of open testimony from prior trials:
- testimony that ground level bombs could not bring down the WTC. It was even suggested by an explosives expert that something like a fully fueled jet would be the only thing that could do real damage.
- testimony that the CIA was able to listen in on Bin Laden's cell phone conversations, causing him to desist permanently from using cell phones.
Disclosures like these put at risk the national security of the United States, arming terrorists with invaluable information. Military tribunals eliminate that problem.
I get really nervous when my right to trial by a jury of my peers is in danger.
Can we limit the application of military tribunals to non-citizens only? I believe that there needs to be a clear distinction between US citizens and foreign nationals; the Constitution can't apply to everyone on the planet.
As for Congress rescinding this power, I discount their ability to legislate ANYTHING in a timely manner, other than stupid gestures like letters of support to friendly countries or pay raises for themselves.
Minor point: Notice the name of the enemy general?
The President has enormous emergency War Powers granted him by the Constitution as the Commander in Chief.
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