Supreme Court agrees to hear new appeal from Guantanamo Bay prisoners

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a new appeal from Guantanamo Bay prisoners who say federal judges should have the ability to order the release of a detainee not considered to be a dangerous “enemy combatant.”

The high court agreed to take up the case over the objections of the Obama administration, and a ruling on the issue could complicate the administration’s plans to close the detention facility by the end of January.

The case concerns 17 Muslim Uighur men from western China taken prisoner in Afghanistan who continue to be held in Guantanamo even though several trial judges have determined they are not a threat to the United States. A U.S. appeals court has blocked their release.

A federal judge ordered the men released last October, but the appeals court reversed that ruling in February, determining that judges do not have the authority to override immigration laws and force the executive branch to release the detainees into the country.

In a 5-4 ruling last year, the Supreme Court said Guantanamo prisoners had a constitutional right to have a judge hear their case for being set free. The high court determined that the detainees could file a writ of habeas corpus and ask a judge to decide whether the U.S. government has grounds for holding them as enemy combatants.

The justices did not weigh in, however, on the specifics surrounding the question of whether the president or a judge has the power to determine how and when to release them.

The Obama administration has sent some of the prisoners to Bermuda, and Palau is willing to accept most of the rest. Only one prisoner is still trying to figure out where to go. The prisoners fear they will be persecuted if they return to China.

The Justice Department tried to convince the Supreme Court not to hear the case by arguing the Uighurs are “free to leave Guantanamo Bay to go to any country that is willing to accept them, and in the meantime, they are housed in facilities separate from those for enemy combatants under the least restrictive conditions practicable.”