Lawyers lobby House Speaker, members to overhaul military commissions bill

Scores of lawyers representing detainees at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are descending on Capitol Hill today to lobby House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and various congressional offices to overhaul GOP legislation governing military tribunals.

About 70 attorneys from some of the country’s largest law firms, sole practitioners and public defenders are reaching out to Congress on National Law Day to press lawmakers to restore the writ of habeas corpus — the right of detainees to challenge the legality of their detention in court.

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Congress in 1961 designated May 1 as National Law Day to celebrate the United States’ commitment to justice and the rule of law. The attorneys who aim to hold more than 50 meetings on the Hill today say such tradition has been tarnished by Congress’s September 2006 vote to deny habeas corpus to hundreds of detainees held in Guantánamo Bay for more than five years.

Habeas corpus is a concept that dates to the Magna Carta, and is a fundamental right of the U.S. legal system. It gives any person held by the government the means to go before a court for a fair determination of whether there is a reasonable basis for detention.

The lobbying comes as the Pentagon tries to limit access of lawyers at Guantánamo Bay. Also, the Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear the case of two prisoners who aim to challenge the legality of military commissions.

The Supreme Court decided on April 2 not to review the issue of whether prisoners could challenge their confinement in federal court.

The lawyers’ approach today is part of a larger effort that includes a whole range of organizations, from law offices to human rights and civil liberties groups. A briefing with congressional staff is also scheduled for today. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the lawyers representing detainees organized the visits.

The delegation on Capitol Hill marks an intensifying push to overhaul the 2006 Military Commissions Act and restore habeas corpus rights as the House and Senate armed services committees take up the 2008 defense authorization bill. The defense authorization bill is being targeted as the vehicle to carry the changes.

Both Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairmen of the armed services panels, recently held hearings on the Military Commissions Act and legal issues regarding military detainees.

The House Armed Services panel is starting its subcommittee markups this week. The full committee markup is May 9. Skelton may be open to revisiting the issue, but is still considering it carefully and is gauging his committee members’ support. Levin has expressed concerns about gathering sufficient votes in his committee to make the changes, according to a source.

It is not yet clear how much Congress will change in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and how soon those changes will be addressed. So far, the issue at the forefront is restoring habeas corpus rights, but some experts in the human-rights arena insist that a change in the definition of “enemy combatant” should go hand in hand with restoring habeas corpus.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a 2008 presidential hopeful, in February introduced a bill called Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007, which aims to restore habeas corpus rights, bar evidence gained through torture or coercion and reinstate U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions in order to protect the nation’s military personnel abroad.

The bill is sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Russ Feingold (D-Wis.); and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Leahy, together with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the Democrats’ strongest ally on restoring habeas corpus, also introduced the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007. The bill’s cosponsors include Dodd; Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the 2008 Democratic frontrunner; Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.); and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Leahy last week testified before the Armed Services Committee on the legal issues regarding detainees and said that he plans to hold a hearing as part of his committee.

In the House, Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced companion legislation to the Dodd and Leahy bills. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, welcomed the legislation. His panel has jurisdiction over the Habeas Corpus issue.

Skelton has said repeatedly that the Military Commissions Act is flawed and cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, is another stalwart supporter of restoring habeas corpus. He has the ear of Speaker Pelosi. Murtha is in favor of closing Guantánamo Bay.

The meeting today is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Speaker’s Office with Pelosi’s staff.

The lawyers are meeting with delegations from all over the country, from California to Tennessee to New York. Among the offices that the lawyers are planning to visit are those of Reps. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), chairman of the armed services personnel subcommittee, and Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.).

Some of the biggest law firms in the country will be represented, including Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Dorsey & Whitney, Shearman & Sterling, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, Jenner & Block, Paul Weiss and Debevoise & Plimpton.

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