Rumsfeld v. Padilla
542 U.S. 426 (2004)

Annotate this Case

SYLLABUS
OCTOBER TERM, 2003
RUMSFELD V. PADILLA


SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE v. PADILLA et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

No. 03–1027. Argued April 28, 2004—Decided June 28, 2004

Respondent Padilla, a United States citizen, was brought to New York for detention in federal criminal custody after federal agents apprehended him while executing a material witness warrant issued by the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Southern District) in connection with its grand jury investigation into the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorist attacks. While his motion to vacate the warrant was pending, the President issued an order to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld designating Padilla an “enemy combatant” and directing that he be detained in military custody. Padilla was later moved to a Navy brig in Charleston, S. C., where he has been held ever since. His counsel then filed in the Southern District a habeas petition under 28 U. S. C. §2241, which, as amended, alleged that Padilla’s military detention violates the Constitution, and named as respondents the President, the Secretary, and Melanie Marr, the brig’s commander. The Government moved to dismiss, arguing, inter alia, that Commander Marr, as Padilla’s immediate custodian, was the only proper respondent, and that the District Court lacked jurisdiction over her because she is located outside the Southern District. That court held that the Secretary’s personal involvement in Padilla’s military custody rendered him a proper respondent, and that it could assert jurisdiction over the Secretary under New York’s long-arm statute, notwithstanding his absence from the District. On the merits, the court accepted the Government’s contention that the President has authority as Commander in Chief to detain as enemy combatants citizens captured on American soil during a time of war. The Second Circuit agreed that the Secretary was a proper respondent and that the Southern District had jurisdiction over the Secretary under New York’s long-arm statute. The appeals court reversed on the merits, however, holding that the President lacks authority to detain Padilla militarily.

Held:

   1. Because this Court answers the jurisdictional question in the negative, it does not reach the question whether the President has authority to detain Padilla militarily. P. 1.

   2. The Southern District lacks jurisdiction over Padilla’s habeas petition. Pp. 5–23.

      (a) Commander Marr is the only proper respondent to Padilla’s petition because she, not Secretary Rumsfeld, is Padilla’s custodian. The federal habeas statute straightforwardly provides that the proper respondent is “the person” having custody over the petitioner. §§2242, §2243. Its consistent use of the definite article indicates that there is generally only one proper respondent, and the custodian is “the person” with the ability to produce the prisoner’s body before the habeas court, see Wales v. Whitney,114 U. S. 564, 574. In accord with the statutory language and Wales’ immediate custodian rule, longstanding federal-court practice confirms that, in “core” habeas challenges to present physical confinement, the default rule is that the proper respondent is the warden of the facility where the prisoner is being held, not the Attorney General or some other remote supervisory official. No exceptions to this rule, either recognized or proposed, apply here. Padilla does not deny the immediate custodian rule’s general applicability, but argues that the rule is flexible and should not apply on the unique facts of this case. The Court disagrees. That the Court’s understanding of custody has broadened over the years to include restraints short of physical confinement does nothing to undermine the rationale or statutory foundation of the Wales rule where, in core proceedings such as the present, physical custody is at issue. Indeed, that rule has consistently been applied in this core context. The Second Circuit erred in taking the view that this Court has relaxed the immediate custodian rule with respect to prisoners detained for other than federal criminal violations, and in holding that the proper respondent is the person exercising the “legal reality of control” over the petitioner. The statute itself makes no such distinction, nor does the Court’s case law support a deviation from the immediate custodian rule here. Rather, the cases Padilla cites stand for the simple proposition that the immediate physical custodian rule, by its terms, does not apply when a habeas petitioner challenges something other than his present physical confinement. See, e.g.,Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Ky.,410 U. S. 484; Strait v. Laird,406 U. S. 341. That is not the case here: Marr exercises day-to-day control over Padilla’s physical custody. The petitioner cannot name someone else just because Padilla’s physical confinement stems from a military order by the President. Identification of the party exercising legal control over the detainee only comes into play when there is no immediate physical custodian. Ex parte Endo, 323 U. S. 283, 304–305, distinguished. Although Padilla’s detention is unique in many respects, it is at bottom a simple challenge to physical custody imposed by the Executive. His detention is thus not unique in any way that would provide arguable basis for a departure from the immediate custodian rule. Pp. 5–13.

      (b) The Southern District does not have jurisdiction over Commander Marr. Section §2241(a)’s language limiting district courts to granting habeas relief “within their respective jurisdictions” requires “that the court issuing the writ have jurisdiction over the custodian,” Braden, supra, at 495. Because Congress added the “respective jurisdictions” clause to prevent judges anywhere from issuing the Great Writ on behalf of applicants far distantly removed, Carbo v. United States,364 U. S. 611, 617, the traditional rule has always been that habeas relief is issuable only in the district of confinement, id., at 618. This commonsense reading is supported by other portions of the habeas statute, e.g., §2242, and by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 22(a). Congress has also legislated against the background of the “district of confinement” rule by fashioning explicit exceptions: E.g., when a petitioner is serving a state criminal sentence in a State containing more than one federal district, “the district . . . wherein [he] is in custody” and “the district . . . within which the State court was held which convicted and sentenced him” have “concurrent jurisdiction,” §2241(d). Such exceptions would have been unnecessary if, as the Second Circuit believed, §2241 permits a prisoner to file outside the district of confinement. Despite this ample statutory and historical pedigree, Padilla urges that, under Braden and Strait, jurisdiction lies in any district in which the respondent is amenable to service of process. The Court disagrees, distinguishing those two cases. Padilla seeks to challenge his present physical custody in South Carolina. Because the immediate-custodian rule applies, the proper respondent is Commander Marr, who is present in South Carolina. There is thus no occasion to designate a “nominal” custodian and determine whether he or she is “present” in the same district as petitioner. The habeas statute’s “respective jurisdictions” proviso forms an important corollary to the immediate custodian rule in challenges to present physical custody under §2241. Together they compose a simple rule that has been consistently applied in the lower courts, including in the context of military detentions: Whenever a §2241 habeas petitioner seeks to challenge his present physical custody within the United States, he should name his warden as respondent and file the petition in the district of confinement. This rule serves the important purpose of preventing forum shopping by habeas petitioners. The District of South Carolina, not the Southern District of New York, was where Padilla should have brought his habeas petition. Pp. 13–19.

      (c) The Court rejects additional arguments made by the dissent in support of the mistaken view that exceptions exist to the immediate custodian and district of confinement rules whenever exceptional, special, or unusual cases arise. Pp. 19–23.

352 F. 3d 695, reversed and remanded.

   Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which O’Connor, J., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined.

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