The Supreme Court expanded its review of government anti-terrorism measures Friday, agreeing to hear the case of a U.S.-born man captured during the fighting in Afghanistan and held incommunicado and without charges.
The high court said it will consider the appeal from Yaser Esam Hamdi, whom the government has labeled an enemy combatant ineligible for ordinary legal protections and a danger to the United States.
Hamdi's case tests the legal and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens captured in the war or terrorism, and raises wider questions about the balance between security and liberty. It is the second major terrorism-related case the high court will hear this term.
The court will probably hear the Hamdi case in April, with a ruling expected by July.
The high court's decision to review the case is another in a recent series of legal setbacks for the Bush administration in terrorism cases. The administration had strongly urged the high court to stay out of the Hamdi case, or to shelve it for now pending an appeal in the similar case of another U.S.-born terrorism suspect.
The administration won its argument in a lower court that Hamdi may be held indefinitely and without the usual legal rights due to U.S. citizens, and wanted that ruling to stand.
Hamdi's father filed a civil liberties challenge on his son's behalf, and a lawyer who has never met Hamdi is pressing the case at the Supreme Court.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond wrongly bowed to government arguments about security, lawyer Frank Dunham told the high court in a legal filing.
The lower federal appeals court not only "embraced an unchecked executive power to indefinitely detain American citizens suspected of being affiliated with enemies, but it also abandoned procedural safeguards designed to promote truth and fairness."
In response, the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer called Hamdi a prime example of a dangerous terror suspect who should be locked up.
"Hamdi is a classic battlefield detainee - captured in Afghanistan, an area of active combat, with an enemy unit," Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court.
Despite that argument, the government recently agreed to allow Dunham to visit his would-be client. The government still contends Hamdi is not constitutionally entitled to a lawyer, and that question will still be a part of the Supreme Court case.
Officials decided to grant the access to a lawyer because Hamdi is a U.S. citizen and the military has finished interrogating him, the Pentagon said last month. Hamdi has not been charged with any crime.
The move was seen at the time as an attempt to blunt criticism of government anti-terror tactics, and as a way to improve the government's legal standing at the Supreme Court. The meeting has not yet taken place.
Earlier this week, Olson asked the justices to put off consideration of the Hamdi case, at least until the government finishes a hurry-up appeal in the similar case of Jose Padilla, a former gang member seized in Chicago in an alleged plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb." Padilla was declared an enemy combatant and, like Hamdi, eventually transferred to the South Carolina naval brig.
The administration plans an appeal in the Padilla case by Jan. 20, and had suggested that the justices consider the two cases together.
The court did not address that request in its brief order granting review in the Hamdi case. It is not clear now whether the court will also agree to hear the Padilla appeal when it comes. The two cases raise slightly different constitutional issues, because Hamdi was captured abroad and Padilla was picked up on U.S. soil.