Hamdan v. Rumsfield

Following is the case brief for Hamdan v. Rumsfield, United States Supreme Court, (2006)

Case summary for Hamdan v. Rumsfield:

  • After being detained and brought to Guantanamo Bay, Hamdan was charged with conspiracy to be tried by a military commission and was granted habeas corpus to dispute his charge.
  • Hamdan claimed that his trial by the U.S. military commission was an unconstitutional use of the presidents executive powers and that his due process rights would be violated.
  • The Court held that the military commissions do not provide required protections under due process principles, Article 3 of the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and result in the unconstitutional exercise of the President’s executive powers.
  • In addition, Article 3 should be construed to protect Hamdan by prohibiting him from trial by a military commission.

Hamdan v. Rumsfield Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Yemeni national, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was seized by the U.S. military and brought to Guantanamo Bay. Later, Hamdan was determined as eligible for a trial orchestrated by the U.S. military commission. Two years prior to being detained, Hamdan was officially charged with conspiracy connected to September 11. In response, Hamdan filed a writ of habeus corpus, claiming the military had no authority to try his case.

Procedural History:

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari. The Court considered whether the military commission’s existing procedure was inconsistent with the Geneva Convention’s  Article 3 and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

  1. The president of the Unites States can only organize military commissions in circumstances where justified subject to our constitution and laws of war, the military justice code and the Geneva Conventions.
  2. The Geneva Convention’s Article 3, should be applied to protect those not involved in international conflict and makes it mandatory for court proceeding against them to be conducted in “regularly constituted” courts which provide specific due process protections.

Issue and Holding:

Whether military commissions organized by the president of the United States to try detainees absent consideration of the laws of war, Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice violate the executive powers limitations on the president? Yes.

Whether the Geneva Convention’s Article 3 applies to protect persons who are not involved in an international conflict? Yes.


The Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision.


Issue 1: It would be unconstitutional for the military commissions to try Hamdan or any other detainees, as it is an unconstitutional exercise of the President’s executive power. This is because the commissions are established under procedures that violate the United States Constitution, the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Court held that the President only has the authority to constitutionally convene military commissions in circumstances where justified subject to the Constitution and laws. This includes the Geneva Conventions, the laws of war and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Court also noted that the protections included under these laws do extend to foreign nationals, like Hamdan, who are detained by the U.S. In addition, the Court stated that military commissions have the jurisdiction to try: 1)war crimes; 2) instances where civilians are put on trial as “part of a temporary military government over occupied enemy territory” or “territory recovered from an enemy where the civilian government cannot and does not function”; and  3) offenses according to the laws of war.

When considering the circumstances surrounding Hamdan’s arrest, the first two instances do not apply.  As a result, Hamdan may only have a trial held by a military commission established under the laws of war for the purpose of trying specifically war crimes.

The charge of “conspiracy,” has never been recognized as a war crime and as a result, Hamdan’s trial for conspiracy in a military commission is unlawful.

If conspiracy was a designated war crime, the trial would still be unconstitutional because the military commissions established by the President to try Hamdan violate the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Procedurally speaking, the overseeing military commissions permit the introduction of evidence that is unknown to the accused, even if it is based on hearsay or unreliable grounds. This unrestricted procedure violates the due process rights of the accused, specifically his ability to confront the evidence presented against him.

In regards to article 3, detainees must be tried in a “regularly constituted court,” implying that due process extends to such detainees.

Issue 2: Article 3 protects Hamdan, prohibiting a trial by the military commission.. A major provision in Article 3 is the prohibition of “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

Here, Hamdan is charged with conspiracy. Conspiracy in connection with acts related to his capacity as an al Qaeda member. This specific situation is covered by Article 3 since he is not involved in an international issue because it is not between two sovereign nations, as defined in the Geneva Convention.

Commentary regarding the adoption of Common Article 3 implies that the article should be interpreted as offering broad protection. When considering the above, Article 3 offer certain procedural protections to Hamdan in judicial proceedings brought against him. These protections include, only being tried in a military commission if it is a regularly constituted court providing all of the judicial guarantees recognized as indispensable by civilized people.

As a result, Hamdan can only have a trial brought against him in a military commission if it is set up in the same manner as “ordinary military courts” governed by established procedures and due process.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (Breyer):

There is nothing that stops the hinders the President from returning to Congress to seek the above executive authority in future endeavors.

Concurring (Kennedy):

Since the military commissions are included within the executive branch, separation of powers issues easily arise. The courts martial outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes for a preferable system regarding the trial of detainees.


This case outlined the procedure for the treatment of detainees from foreign nations and displayed the executive limits on the president’s powers. The decision shed light on the fact that prisoners of war cannot be tried in military commissions which fail to afford the rights set out in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.

Student Resources: