- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says the compromise deal on terrorism-detainee legislation reached last week “has to be changed,” and that he will “vigorously oppose” a section of the bill that strips the detainees of their right to appeal to the federal courts.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania spoke for the first time yesterday about the compromise reached last week between the White House and three leading Republican senators on legislation that sets standards for interrogating and trying suspected terrorists held in U.S. military custody.

“Most of it is a big improvement,” Mr. Specter told CNN of the bill, which was published Friday. “But there’s one part that I vigorously disagree with, and that is taking away the jurisdiction of the federal courts on what we call habeas corpus.”

Habeas corpus is an ancient legal doctrine dating back to the origins of English common law in the Magna Carta of 1215, under which anyone held by the government can challenge his detention — forcing the courts to rule on its legality.

The bill would effectively remove the right of those detained outside of the United States or those defined by U.S. authorities as “unlawful enemy combatants” to challenge their detention in court. It would also sweep away a number of cases already proceeding through the courts, according to the Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights.

“The absence of any reliable and objective means of challenging the U.S. government action in court makes a mockery of even the more limited protections set out in this proposed bill,” Mr. Sklar said. Without habeas corpus, “there is no realistic way for a victim to bring problems to a court’s attention and to seek redress.”

In advance of hearings on the issue today, Mr. Specter pointed out that habeas petitions to the federal courts by detainees at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had been the basis of the U.S. Supreme Court cases that forced the administration to revise the rules for their treatment and their trial by military commission.

Congress had punted on the issue, he said, calling the matter “too hot to handle.”

“The federal courts just have to be open” to these cases, he said, noting that the Constitution allows the suspension of habeas corpus only “in time of rebellion or invasion.”

“And we don’t have either,” Mr. Specter added, “So that has to be changed, in my opinion.”

Last week, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, said he would work with Mr. Specter to eliminate the restrictions on habeas. Opposition to the habeas provisions of the detainee bill further complicates an already tricky legislative task for the Republican leadership in the Senate, which will wrap up for the election recess at the end of the week.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, brought the compromise detainee bill to the floor Friday, using a special procedure enabling him to bypass the committees of jurisdiction. But he also brought a bill to the floor combining that measure with one that authorizes President Bush’s program of warrantless wiretaps of suspected terrorists.

One senior Democratic Senate staffer said that including the wiretapping provision could complicate the issue because a number of Republicans oppose parts of that bill.

“The question is, if someone objects [to parts of the bill], will he have the votes to make cloture?” the staffer asked, referring to the parliamentary procedure required to vote on the matter.



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