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You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief-at least from many quarters-when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 5-3 majority ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the high court ruled that military commissions established by President Bush to try enemy combatants charged in the war on terror violated federal law and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949. The reasons to celebrate Hamdan transcend the usual clatter of partisan politics and go to the vital need for fundamentally sound jurisprudence, both domestic and international. The ruling also effectively, if only temporarily, trims the sails of an administration seemingly bent on expanding its constitutionally allotted powers to the breaking point under the guise of executing a war. Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion, rejected the administration’s argument that the conventions’ full protections apply only to declared war or armed conflict between two or more of the conventions’ signatories. The justice noted that at least one provision in the Geneva Conventions extends minimal protections to individuals in a conflict in the territory of a signatory. More importantly, Stevens noted that defendants should be tried by “a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees” recognized by “civilized people.” But the issue is far from over. Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., as well as senators Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., are all planning to work on legislation to address the flaws highlighted in Hamdan. There’s plenty of reason to be pessimistic. The high court has in some cases ground down the rights of criminal defendants this year, ruling that prosecutors can use evidence seized by police after violating the rule that they knock and announce their intention to execute a warrant ( Hudson v. Michigan). The court also found that juries may hear 911 recordings of witnesses whom defendants are not able to cross-examine ( Davis v. Washington). We can only hope that lawmakers, when addressing Hamdan, work to truly remedy flaws elucidated in the majority opinion-not dodge them. After all, that’s the true mark of a “civilized people.”

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