Hamdi v. Rumsfeld

Following is the case brief for Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004).

Case Summary of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld:

  • Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, was captured in Afghanistan while presumably fighting for the Taliban.  The U.S. Government detained him as an “enemy combatant.”
  • Hamdi was indefinitely detained in the U.S. without charges and without access to legal counsel.
  • The District Court hearing Hamdi’s habeas petition sought further evidence of his “enemy combatant” designation.  The Fourth Circuit, however, found that the Government’s reasons for indefinitely detaining Hamdi were sufficient.
  • The Supreme Court held that a citizen detained as an “enemy combatant” must be given notice of the reasons for that designation, and an opportunity to rebut the designation before a neutral tribunal.

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (“AUMF”).  The AUMF allowed the President to use force against those entities or persons who committed the attacks on September 11th, in order to prevent future attacks.  Soon after, the President sent troops to Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Yaser Esam Hamdi, born a U.S. citizen, was detained in Afghanistan by U.S. troops.  The U.S. Government contended that Hamdi had taken up arms for the Taliban, and against the U.S.  The Government deemed Hamdi an “enemy combatant,” which justified holding Hamdi indefinitely and without formal charges or proceedings.

Hamdi’s father, on Hamdi’s behalf, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court.  The petition argued that Hamdi’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.  Hamdi argued that, as a U.S. citizen, he was improperly detained without charges, access to a tribunal, or legal counsel.  Before the Federal District Court, the only evidence presented was a declaration by the Government.  That declaration stated that Hamdi was affiliated with the Taliban and had surrendered an assault rifle to U.S. troops.

Procedural History:

The Federal District Court determined that the Government’s declaration, standing alone, was insufficient to justify Hamdi’s detention.  The District Court asked for further evidence.  The Fourth Circuit reversed.  The Fourth Circuit, giving deference to the Government’s war powers, found that the Government’s declaration was sufficient for Hamdi’s detention.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Can the Government detain a U.S. citizen as an “enemy combatant” without access to legal counsel, without having charges brought against him, and without the chance to rebut the “enemy combatant” classification?  No.


The decision of the Fourth Circuit is vacated and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A detained U.S. citizen, who wishes to challenge his classification as an “enemy combatant,” must be given the basis for his classification, and be given a reasonable opportunity to challenge the Government’s assertions before a neutral decisionmaker.


The Court in this case was presented with the tension between personal freedom and national security.  Specifically, the Court was called upon to find the balance between a U.S. citizen’s right to due process, and the Government’s interest in ensuring that a person who has fought against the U.S. during war is not permitted to return to the battlefield.

Writing for a plurality, Justice O’Connor first found that the Government did indeed have the authority to detain Hamdi under the AUMF.  Justice O’Connor, however, went on to hold that even though the Executive branch be given deference during times of conflict, the Government does not enjoy unchecked power during wartime.  Accordingly, the Constitution demands that Hamdi be given legal counsel and some ability to rebut his classification as an “enemy combatant.”

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting (Scalia):

Justice Scalia would have reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision, but for a different reason.  Justice Scalia found that the AUMF does not authorize the Government’s detention of Hamdi without charge.  The only way the Government could accomplish such a detention would be from suspension of habeas corpus, which did not occur here.

Dissenting (Thomas):

Justice Thomas would have affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision.  Justice Thomas noted that the Executive Branch, under its war powers approved by the AUMF, determined that Hamdi is an “enemy combatant.”  The Court does not have the expertise to challenge that decision.

Concurring/Dissenting in part, Concurring in the judgment (Souter):

Justice Souter agrees with the plurality’s rejection of any limit on its habeas jurisdiction.  However, Justice Souter does not agree that Hamdi’s detention is authorized under the AUMF.


Hamdi v. Rumsfeld tackled the fundamental tension between individual rights and national security in the context of “the war on terror.”  The Court’s balancing of those opposing interests sets precedent for future cases in a post-9/11 world.

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