Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004) was a U.S. Supreme Court decision reversing the dismissal of a habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen being detained indefinitely as an "illegal enemy combatant". The Court recognized the power of the government to detain unlawful combatants, but ruled that detainees who are U.S. citizens must have the ability to challenge their detention before an impartial judge.
Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan by the Afghan Northern Alliance in 2001 and then turned over to U.S. military authorities during the U.S. invasion. The U.S. government alleged that Hamdi was there fighting for the Taliban, while Hamdi, through his father, has claimed that he was merely there as a relief worker and was mistakenly captured.
Hamdi was initially held at Guantanamo Bay, but then transferred to a naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia when it was discovered that he held U.S. (as well as Saudi) citizenship, and then finally to a brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The Bush administration claimed that because Hamdi was caught in arms against the U.S., he could be properly detained as an enemy combatant, without any oversight of presidential decision making, or without access to an attorney or the court system. The administration argued that this power was constitutional and necessary to effectively fight the War on Terror, declared by the congress of the United States in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act passed after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The government used its detention authority to ensure that terrorists were no longer a threat while active combat operations continued and to ensure suspects could be fully interrogated.
In June 2002, Hamdi's father, Esam Fouad Hamdi, filed a habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The Honorable Robert G. Doumar ruled that Hamdi's father was a proper "next friend" having standing to sue on behalf of his son, and ordered that a federal public defender be given access to Hamdi. On appeal, however, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court's order, ruling that the District Court had failed to give proper deference to the government's "intelligence and security interests," and that it should proceed with a properly deferential investigation.
The case was then sent back to the District Court, which denied the government's motion to dismiss Hamdi's petition. Judge Doumar found the government's evidence supporting Hamdi's detention woefully inadequate, and based predominantly on hearsay and bare assertions. The District Court ordered the government to produce numerous documents for in camera review by the court that would enable it to perform a "meaningful judicial review," such as the statements by the Northern Alliance regarding Hamdi's capture, the dates and circumstances of his capture and interrogations, and a list of all the officials involved in the determination of his "unlawful combatant" status.
The government appealed Judge Doumar's order to produce the evidence, and the Fourth Circuit again reversed the District Court. Because it was "undisputed that Hamdi was captured in a zone of active combat in a foreign theater of conflict," the Fourth Circuit stated that it was not proper for any court to hear a challenge of his status. It ruled that the broad warmaking powers delegated to the President under Article Two of the United States Constitution and the principle of separation of powers prohibited courts from interfering in this vital area of national security. After the Fourth Circuit denied a petition for rehearing en banc, Hamdi's father appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted review and reversed the Fourth Circuit's ruling.
Hamdi was represented before the Court by the late Federal Public Defender Frank W. Dunham, Jr. and the Government's side was argued by the Principal Deputy Solicitor General, Paul Clement.
Though no single opinion of the Court commanded a majority, eight of the nine justices of the Court agreed that the Executive Branch does not have the power to hold indefinitely a U.S. citizen without basic due process protections
enforceable through judicial review.