Cheap justice (habeus corpus too expensive for GOP)

My wife and I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper yesterday. Out of respect for the paper’s request that submitted letters be otherwise unpublished, I won’t copy it here, but I will spell out some of what we were writing about.

So it started with an article about the recently successful filibuster by Senate Republicans, to prevent a vote on a bill that would allow Guantanamo Bay detainees, and other prisoners in the “war on terror,” to have access to the court system for review of their cases; that is, to return to them the right of habeus corpus that was stripped in previous legislation. (We read it in our local Valley News, but it was originally from the Washington Post.)

A Republican filibuster in the Senate yesterday shot down a bipartisan effort to restore the right of terrorism suspects to contest in federal courts their detention and treatment, underscoring the Democratic-led Congress’s difficulty with terrorism issues.

The detainee rights amendment was an effort to reverse a provision in last year’s Military Commissions Act that suspended the writ of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other offshore prisons.

The authors of last year’s bill said that advocates of such rights would open the federal courts to endless lawsuits from the nation’s worst enemies. “To start that process would be an absolute disaster for this country,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force Reserve lawyer who was instrumental in crafting the provision in question in last year’s bill. …

It was that quote from Senator Graham that got us steaming mad. There’s the basic logical notion that we cannot know if the prisoners in question actually are enemies of the U.S. if the government is never required to present any actual evidence. Not surprisingly, many of those who have been held at Guantanamo Bay turned out not to be terrorists or enemies of any sort at all. A recent Nation web article states that

In fact, the government’s own data shows that the majority of prisoners at Guantánamo never took up arms against the United States or engaged in hostile conduct toward this country. The cells at Guantánamo are full of civilians, many of whom were seized in places like Bosnia and Gambia, thousands of miles from any battlefield.

Regardless, how much of a disaster could it possibly be for the country if Gitmo prisoners had access to the courts? After all, “As of September 6, 2007, approximately 340 detainees remained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” Assuming all of them filed suit in federal court, that would only increase the federal district court system’s caseload by about 0.18% over the caseload of original filings it had in 2006 [note: link is to a PDF document of table S7 from] Hardly seems debilitating on a functional level.

But maybe Senator Graham is concerned about the court system being pushed too hard as it is, so that those handful of extra cases would be the straws that broke our national judicial system’s back? Then perhaps Senator Graham and his fellow Republicans would like to support increasing the budget of the courts. When it comes to war and defense related activities, the money is always available. See Table 25-13 [an Excel file] from the Budget of the United States Government: Detailed Functional Tables Fiscal Year 2008. There you’ll see that all spending on “national defense” (I think this excludes special appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) in fiscal year 2007 comes to an estimated $523.005 billion. Meanwhile, the budget for the federal court system was a comparatively piddling $5.98 billion–equivalent to a mere 1.14% of the national defense spending.

Clearly any increase in the courts’ load due to Gitmo suits would be a drop in the bucket compared to spending on the wars here, there, and everywhere. All these wars are supposedly being fought specifically in defense of the American “way of life,” fighting against those who “hate us because of our freedoms.” Yet when this way of life and these freedoms, which ought to include some minimal acknowledgment of the Constitution and its limits on arbitrary detention, etc., are inconvenient and even mildly expensive, out the window they go.