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Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 542 U.S. 426 (2004), was a United States Supreme Court case, in which José Padilla sought habeas corpus relief against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as a result of his detainment as an "unlawful combatant."

On May 8, 2002, Padilla, a U.S. citizen, flew from Pakistan to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. As he stepped off the plane, Padilla was apprehended by federal agents executing a material witness warrant issued by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in connection with its grand jury investigation into the September 11th terrorist attacks. Initially Padilla was considered a "material witness," without charges filed, and given only very limited access to legal counsel. His designation was later changed to "enemy combatant," which, the Bush administration claimed, meant that he, like many non-citizen suspects in the War on Terror, could be imprisoned indefinitely, and without legal recourse or access.

Padilla's attorney, Donna Newman, claiming to act as his next friend and on his behalf, filed a petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. On December 4, 2002, the court denied the petition and held that the President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief had the authority to designate as an "enemy combatant" an American citizen captured on American soil, and, through the Secretary of Defense, to detain him for the duration of armed conflict with al-Qaida.

The case was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which held that the President lacked the authority to order the military detentions of American citizens captured on American soil.

The case was then petitioned to the United States Supreme Court. The principal issue before the Court was whether the Congressional Authorization for use of Military Force post September 11 gave to the President the powers to militarily detain a United States citizen by classifying the detainee as an "enemy combatant." Otherwise, the President would run afoul of the Non-Detention Act which provides that "No citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress.[1]

The Court did not decide this issue, however. Instead, the Court held that the habeas corpus petition had been improperly filed. It ruled that because Padilla was being held in a brig (military prison) in South Carolina, the petition should have been filed in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina and should have named the commander of the brig and not the Secretary of Defense (because the brig commander was Padilla's "immediate custodian"). The Court reversed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and remanded the case for dismissal without prejudice - that is, it overruled the Court of Appeals decision and ordered the dismissal of the case, allowing Padilla to refile the petition. Thus the principal issue of the case had not been resolved.

Paul Clement, Principal Deputy Solicitor General at the time, gave oral argument for the United States (Rumsfeld); law professor and human rights lawyer Jennifer Martinez gave oral argument on behalf of Padilla and Newman.

Political context Edit

The case was argued only two days before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal was first shown to the general public in a The New Yorker article by Seymour M. Hersh (April 30), which showed digital photos taken by guards. The story was subsequently taken up by CBS and broadcast on nationwide television.

The timing of the two events is relevant for understanding political context —before the publicizing of incriminating photographs of abused Iraqi detainees, the United States was largely dominated by a political climate wherein the charge of abuse was only anecdotal —it was weighed lightly as compared to appeals for national security. Still, the rendered decision came after news of the scandal broke, and the degree to which the Abu Ghraib case had influence is speculative.

During the oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked some pointed questions of Clement — some of which directly treated the issue of abuse. An important dialogue features a comment by Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement which denies the claim that the United States uses torture:

Justice Ginsburg
Suppose the executive says mild torture, we think, will help get this information. It's not a soldier who does something against the Code of Military Justice, but it's an executive command. Some systems do that to get information.
Well, our executive doesn't. And I think, I mean...
Justice Ginsburg
What's constraining? That's the point. Is it just up to the good will of the executive, or is there any judicial check?

Supreme Court Cases Edit

See alsoEdit


  1. 18 U.S.C. § 4001

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