WASHINGTON -- The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Well.
Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?
Did McCain's extravagant condemnation of the court's habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents? More likely, some clever ignoramus convinced him that this decision could make the Supreme Court -- meaning, which candidate would select the best judicial nominees -- a campaign issue.
The decision, however, was 5-4. The nine justices are of varying quality, but there are not five fools or knaves. The question of the detainees' -- and the government's -- rights is a matter about which intelligent people of good will can differ.
The purpose of a writ of habeas corpus is to cause a government to release a prisoner or show through due process why the prisoner should be held. Of Guantanamo's approximately 270 detainees, many certainly are dangerous "enemy combatants." Some probably are not. None will be released by the court's decision, which does not even guarantee a right to a hearing. Rather, it guarantees only a right to request a hearing. Courts retain considerable discretion regarding such requests.
As such, the Supreme Court's ruling only begins marking a boundary against government's otherwise boundless power to detain people indefinitely, treating Guantanamo as (in Barack Obama's characterization) "a legal black hole." And public habeas hearings might benefit the Bush administration by reminding Americans how bad its worst enemies are.
Critics, including Chief Justice John Roberts in dissent, are correct that the court's decision clouds more things than it clarifies. Is the "complete and total" U.S. control of Guantanamo a solid-enough criterion to prevent the habeas right from being extended to other U.S. facilities around the world where enemy combatants are or might be held? Are habeas rights the only constitutional protections that prevail at Guantanamo? If there are others, how many? All of them? If so, can there be trials by military commissions, which permit hearsay evidence and evidence produced by coercion?