The justices agreed to hear appeals filed on behalf of two groups of detainees at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The cases have been brought on behalf of 12 Kuwaitis, 2 British citizens and 2 Australians.
The prisoners are among more than 600 being held as suspected Taliban or Al-Qaeda members. They were swept up by American forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan in the campaign to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States.
Lower courts have held that the prisoners cannot use American courts to challenge their incarceration because the United States has no legal jurisdiction over the Navy base, which it has leased from Cuba for more than a century.
In so ruling, the courts have in effect deferred to the Bush administration on actions it has taken in the name of national security since the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, more than died at Pearl Harbor.
“Cuba — not the United States — has sovereignty over Guantánamo Bay,” the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last March, upholding a district court ruling. For that reason, the appeals court concluded, American courts are not open to the detainees. Lawyers for the detainees have asserted that the United States does have sovereignty over Guantánamo, since it controls the 45-square-mile base.
The Supreme Court will decide, probably next year, whether the District of Columbia Circuit was right. But the comments of lawyers on both sides suggest that the justices will be asked to decide something of more transcendent importance.
“In times of war, the president must be able to protect our nation from enemies who seek to harm innocent Americans,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said last March in praising the circuit court conclusion.
Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson had urged the Supreme Court not to hear the Guantánamo detainees’ appeal. His brief argued that the circuit court had properly interpreted a 53-year-old Supreme Court precedent to hold that “aliens detained by the military abroad” have only those rights that are “determined by the executive and the military, and not the courts.” (Mr. Olson’s wife, Barbara, was killed in the hijacked airliner that struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.)