Boumediene v. Bush

553 U.S. 723 (2008)

Quick Summary

Lakhdar Boumediene and other Guantanamo Bay detainees (plaintiffs) challenged their indefinite detentions without trial. The Supreme Court addressed whether these non-citizen detainees held outside U.S. sovereign territory have habeas corpus rights and whether alternative procedures under the DTA were sufficient.

The Court concluded that detainees do have habeas corpus rights protected by the Constitution, and that the MCA’s denial of these rights was unconstitutional, thus reversing the lower court’s decision.

Facts of the Case

Lakhdar Boumediene and other detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, (plaintiffs) were classified as unlawful alien enemy combatants by Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) and detained indefinitely. These individuals, captured in various locations including Afghanistan and Bosnia, contested their detentions and sought relief through writs of habeas corpus.

The U.S. government (defendant) argued that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006 barred such challenges, citing that Guantanamo Bay detainees had no constitutional rights to habeas corpus due to the base’s location outside U.S. sovereign territory.

The case raised significant constitutional questions regarding the extent of detainees’ rights, the application of constitutional protections to foreign territories under U.S. control, and the balance of powers among the branches of the U.S. government in the context of national security and individual liberty.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Detainees classified as unlawful alien enemy combatants filed habeas corpus petitions in District Court.
  2. The District Court dismissed the cases for lack of jurisdiction.
  3. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the MCA.
  4. The detainees petitioned for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether detainees at Guantanamo Bay have the constitutional privilege of habeas corpus to challenge their detention and if the procedures under the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) are an adequate substitute for habeas corpus.

Rule of Law

The Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to habeas corpus, allowing it to be suspended only in cases of rebellion or invasion when public safety may require it.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court held that the right to habeas corpus is a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Constitution. The Court reasoned that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, despite being non-citizens and held outside sovereign U.S. territory, are entitled to challenge their detentions under the Suspension Clause.

The Court found that practical considerations and separation-of-powers principles demand a functional approach to the Suspension Clause’s applicability rather than a formalistic one based solely on territorial sovereignty.

Further, the Court determined that the procedures provided by the DTA were not an adequate substitute for habeas corpus because they failed to offer detainees a meaningful opportunity to contest their detentions and did not empower courts to order release when appropriate. The MCA’s provision stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over habeas petitions by detainees was thus deemed an unconstitutional suspension of the writ.


The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, holding that detainees at Guantanamo Bay have the right to habeas corpus under the Constitution and that the MCA’s restrictions on that right were unconstitutional. The cases were remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia wrote dissenting opinions, arguing against extending habeas rights to Guantanamo Bay detainees and maintaining that Congress acted within its authority in enacting the MCA’s jurisdiction-stripping provisions.

Key Takeaways

  1. The right to habeas corpus extends to non-citizen detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
  2. The Military Commissions Act’s provision denying federal court jurisdiction over habeas petitions from Guantanamo detainees is unconstitutional.
  3. The Detainee Treatment Act’s procedures are not an adequate substitute for traditional habeas corpus rights.

Relevant FAQs of this case

Can the right to habeas corpus be suspended outside traditional sovereign territory?

A right to habeas corpus can generally be suspended only in extreme circumstances such as rebellion or invasion. However, the jurisprudence surrounding habeas corpus has evolved to a functional approach that considers the nature of government authority exercised over a location rather than formal sovereignty.

  • For example: Even though a military base abroad is not part of the home country’s territorial sovereignty, detainees may still enjoy habeas corpus rights if the home country exercises de facto jurisdiction over the area.

What determines if a legal procedure is an adequate substitute for habeas corpus?

An adequate substitute for habeas corpus must provide a comprehensive review of both the lawfulness of detention and factual basis for detaining an individual, equivalent to what would be available via a habeas corpus proceeding.

  • For example: If a statute allows for judicial review of detentions but lacks the power to order release, it would not be considered an adequate substitute for habeas corpus.

How does the balance of powers doctrine influence individual liberties during national security concerns?

The balance of powers doctrine ensures that no single branch of government has exclusive control over national security matters to the detriment of individual liberties, requiring collaborative governance and judicial oversight in such cases.

  • For example: If legislated measures during wartime appear to infringe on individual liberties, courts might assess their constitutionality to prevent executive overreach and protect personal freedoms.


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