Since early 2002, the U.S. military had detained suspected enemy combatants incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In a 6-3 opinion by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court held that a federal district court had statutory authority to assert jurisdiction over detainees challenging the legality of their detainment under habeas corpus. An earlier precedent, Johnson v. Eisentrager, held that aliens detained by the United States military overseas, outside the sovereign borders of the United States, could not assert habeas corpus. The Court reasoned that this was inapt because that case relied on another case, Ahrens v. Clark, which the Court claimed had been overruled; the Court claimed Ahrens had reinterpreted the habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. §2241, since Eisentrager had been decided. Because the statutory predicate for Eisentrager had been overruled, a detainee could file a habeas petition within the jurisdiction of district court where the jailer was located and the detainee need not also be within that jurisdiction, so detainees could get a habeas hearing from Guantanamo Bay.
The Court abused the relevant precedent through precedential revisionism, engaged in : judicial imperialism and played legislator by conferring new rights in a haphazard manner. The government justifiably relied on Eisentrager when it decided to place detainees as Guantanamo Bay, out of the reach of federal court jurisdiction for habeas motions. The Court misrepresented Eisentrager and effectively overturned it by denying that Eisentrager had ever interpreted the habeas statute, yet Eisentrager had to rely on the statute; it was necessary for that Court to find that the statute did not grant jurisdiction to enemy aliens held abroad in order to reach the constitutional issue of jurisdiction as it did (thereby denying jurisdiction on constitutional grounds to those enemy aliens). Likewise, it misrepresented Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Ky. as overruling Ahrens, thereby undermining the Eisentrager decision and allowing jurisdiction for those outside a court’s territorial jurisdiction,. In fact, Braden never mentioned Eisentrager and it distinguished Ahrens, as Braden was really about forum convenience and venue, not jurisdiction. Therefore, as Justice Scalia noted in dissent, the Court effected “a wrenching departure from precedent” and “[sprung] a trap on the Executive.”
This unexpected departure from precedent also grants rights haphazardly while causing substantial judicial aggrandizement. As Justice Scalia noted, the Court effectively granted detainees held abroad not only unprecedented access to the courts where they had always had none (both by statute and by the consistent understanding of habeas corpus), it also granted them greater rights than domestic detainees, as they could petition any district in the U.S., allowing them to forum shop. In doing so, the Court subjected detention policy and practice, a traditionally Executive function that has dire implications during wartime, to cumbersome review by the judicial system. This undoubtedly frustrated the clear intention and reliance of military commanders on being able to conduct necessary military operations which depend on detaining active enemy combatants.