Hamdi v. Rumsfeld,
542 U.S. 507 (2004)

Annotate this Case




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

No. 03–6696. Argued April 28, 2004—Decided June 28, 2004

After Congress passed a resolution—the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)—empowering the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against “nations, organizations, or persons” that he determines “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” in the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorist attacks, the President ordered the Armed Forces to Afghanistan to subdue al Qaeda and quell the supporting Taliban regime. Petitioner Hamdi, an American citizen whom the Government has classified as an “enemy combatant” for allegedly taking up arms with the Taliban during the conflict, was captured in Afghanistan and presently is detained at a naval brig in Charleston, S. C. Hamdi’s father filed this habeas petition on his behalf under 28 U. S. C. §2241, alleging, among other things, that the Government holds his son in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Although the petition did not elaborate on the factual circumstances of Hamdi’s capture and detention, his father has asserted in other documents in the record that Hamdi went to Afghanistan to do “relief work” less than two months before September 11 and could not have received military training. The Government attached to its response to the petition a declaration from Michael Mobbs (Mobbs Declaration), a Defense Department official. The Mobbs Declaration alleges various details regarding Hamdi’s trip to Afghanistan, his affiliation there with a Taliban unit during a time when the Taliban was battling U. S.allies, and his subsequent surrender of an assault rifle. The District Court found that the Mobbs Declaration, standing alone, did not support Hamdi’s detention and ordered the Government to turn over numerous materials for in camera review. The Fourth Circuit reversed, stressing that, because it was undisputed that Hamdi was captured in an active combat zone, no factual inquiry or evidentiary hearing allowing Hamdi to be heard or to rebut the Government’s assertions was necessary or proper. Concluding that the factual averments in the Mobbs Declaration, if accurate, provided a sufficient basis upon which to conclude that the President had constitutionally detained Hamdi, the court ordered the habeas petition dismissed. The appeals court held that, assuming that express congressional authorization of the detention was required by 18 U. S. C. §4001(a)—which provides that “[n]o citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress”— the AUMF’s “necessary and appropriate force” language provided the authorization for Hamdi’s detention. It also concluded that Hamdi is entitled only to a limited judicial inquiry into his detention’s legality under the war powers of the political branches, and not to a searching review of the factual determinations underlying his seizure.

Held: The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded.

   Justice O’Connor, joined by The Chief Justice, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Breyer, concluded that although Congress authorized the detention of combatants in the narrow circumstances alleged in this case, due process demands that a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker. Pp. 14–15.

   Justice Souter, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concluded that Hamdi’s detention is unauthorized, but joined with the plurality to conclude that on remand Hamdi should have a meaningful opportunity to offer evidence that he is not an enemy combatant. Pp. 2–3, 15.

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

Primary Holding

U.S. citizens may be designated as enemy combatants, but due process rights still apply to any U.S. citizens in detention. They also have the right to a hearing on enemy combatant status before a neutral tribunal.


In 2001, Yaser Esam Hamdi was captured by troops of the U.S.-friendly Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and transferred to the American military. He was a U.S. citizen born in Louisiana but had lived in Saudi Arabia since 1980. Although he was not involved in fighting in Afghanistan, according to his father, he was classified and detained as an enemy combatant, first in Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo Bay. Once his citizenship was discovered, Hamdi was moved to naval prisons in Virginia and South Carolina.

At that stage, his father brought a petition for habeas corpus relief, challenging his status as an enemy combatant. This was a classification that the government had invoked under the Authorization for Use of Military Force, a law passed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It denied access to a lawyer and civilian courts to detainees for reasons of national security.

A series of orders and reversals were issued from federal district court and the Fourth Circuit. After the federal district court had ordered that a public defender be appointed to assist Hamdi, the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision on the basis of deference owed to the government's national security objectives. Similarly, the district court's denial of the government's motion to dismiss the habeas corpus detention was reversed and remande by the Fourth Circuit, which disagreed with the district court that the government needed to provided more evidence to justify Hamdi's status at an in camera review.

Procedural History

US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 294 F.3d 598 (4th Cir. 2002)

Reversed, Access to an attorney is not appropriate for an individual classified and detained as an enemy combatant, based on the government's strong interest in national security.

US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia - 243 F.Supp.2d 527 (E.D. Va. 2002)

Defendant's motion to dismiss denied. Barring the submission of further evidence, the government has not conclusively shown that it was correct in classifying Hamdi as an enemy combatant.

US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 316 F.3d 450 (4th Cir. 2003)

Reversed. The district court should have given more deference to the government's statements that the individual met the definition of an enemy combatant, taking into account the executive branch's extensive powers during wartime under Article II of the Constitution. The separation of powers principle prevents a court from hearing a challenge to this status.



  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Using the three-part balancing test of Mathews v. Eldridge, O'Connor found that due process required that detainees have a meaningful opportunity to challenge their enemy combatant status. The three issues to consider under this standard are the interests of the government, the individual rights at stake, and the extent to which additional procedures would improve the chance of reaching a just outcome.

The plurality recognized the significance of the interests on both sides, which pitted individual liberty against national security. O'Connor tried to strike a compromise by reducing the evidentiary requirements for the government, including permitting the introduction of hearsay and adjusting the burden of proof. Her decision required the Department of Defense to create tribunals for reviewing the status of enemy combatants, which did not need to be overseen by an Article III judge. She found that detainees had the right to a lawyer during these proceedings, however. O'Connor was less deferential to the government than the Fourth Circuit. She emphasized the value of courts in checking executive power, even during wartime, so that individual rights could be protected. The writ of habeas corpus traditionally had played a key role in this separation of power.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

While agreeing with the plurality that detainees like Hamdi deserved some measure of due process to challenge their status, Souter was not convinced that the Authorization for Use of Military Force provided an adequate basis for detaining them.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens

Relying on an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and American history, Scalia felt that the government needed to either try Hamdi in criminal proceedings or suspend the writ of habeas corpus. He felt that the plurality went beyond the Court's proper role in prescribing certain procedures rather than simply determining whether or not the current procedures were permissible.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

This Justice would have upheld the Fourth Circuit in finding that no additional due process was needed for individuals detained as enemy combatants. Thomas argued for strong deference to the executive branch, considering the national security interests involved and its traditional authority over war and emergency situations. He felt that the Authorization for Use of Military Force provided authority for the current system of detention.

Case Commentary

The balance between individual freedom and national security resonated through many of the Supreme Court's decisions after September 11, when the government enacted more restrictive and intrusive measures. Since both issues are among the most fundamental that it considers, decisions balancing them are likely to be hotly contested, deeply divided, and unpredictable. This decision was far from conclusive, instead leading to the Supreme Court case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which dealt with apparent deficiencies in the way that the tribunals authorized by Hamdi functioned.

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