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February 11, 2014
  Aamer v. Obama
Headline: D.C. Circuit finds habeas jurisdiction to hear Guantanamo detainees' challenges to conditions of confinement but declines to enjoin force-feeding protocol.

Area of Law: Habeas Corpus, Military Commissions Act, Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Issue Presented: Whether federal courts have habeas jurisdiction to hear challenges to Guantanamo detainees' conditions of confinement, and if so, whether the court should enjoin a force-feeding program on the basis that it violates either the Constitution or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Brief Summary: Petitioners, detainees cleared for release but still confined at Guantanamo Bay, protested their continued confinement by engaging in a hunger strike. The government instituted a force-feeding protocol triggered when inmates' weight reached a level less than 85% of their ideal body weight or they missed nine consecutive meals. In two separate proceedings, Petitioners invoked the habeas jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and sought a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of this protocol on the basis that it violated their constitutional rights and RFRA. Both district courts concluded that the Military Commission Act (MCA) stripped federal courts of jurisdiction to hear such challenges and denied Petitioners' requests. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit consolidated the appeals. A divided court held that Petitioners' claims properly sound in habeas corpus and were not barred by the MCA. However, the court found that Petitioners failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits and denied the request for interim relief.

The D.C. Circuit first rejected the government's argument that the MCA and the Suspension Clause were implicated in this case. The court found that Boumediene v. Bush struck down ยง 2241(e)(1), the only provision of the MCA dealing with habeas. The court expressed no view on whether Congress could, consistent with the Constitution, enact legislation precluding courts from exercising jurisdiction over certain kinds of habeas claims, but found it dispositive that Congress has not yet done so.

Turning to the more general question of whether challenges to conditions of confinement are cognizable in habeas, the court found that the Supreme Court had left it open and that the D.C. Circuit had previously resolved it in the affirmative. In Hudson v. Hardy, 424 F.2d 854 (D.C. Cir. 1970) ("Hudson II"), the court held that habeas corpus was available to test "not only the fact but also the form of detention," and the petitioners in that case had in fact challenged their treatment while in custody. The court acknowledged a split in circuits on this question but aligned itself with the majority view.

On the merits of the injunction, the court noted that a prison regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Assuming without deciding that the force-feeding protocol does burden fundamental rights and that those fundamental rights extend to nonresident aliens detained at Guantanamo, the D.C. Circuit found the force-feeding protocol reasonably related to the penological interest in preserving the lives of those in custody. The court concluded further that RFRA does not extend to Guantanamo detainees, who do not qualify as protected persons within the meaning of that statute. As a result, the court denied the requested injunction.

Senior Circuit Judge Williams dissented, arguing that neither Hudson II nor any other precedent authorized a conditions-of-confinement claim under habeas corpus.

For the full text of this opinion, please visit

Panel (if known): Tatel, Griffith, and Williams.

Argument Date (if known): October 18, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: February 11, 2014

Docket Number: 13-5223

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Joseph T. Maher, Jr.

Counsel (if known): Jon B. Eisenberg, Cori Crider, and Tara Murray for appellants. Daniel J. Lenerz, Stuart F. Delery, Douglas N. Letter, and Matthew M. Collette for appellees.

Author of Opinion: Tatel

Dissent by: Williams

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Elizabeth Beske, Ripple Weistling

    Posted By: Ripple Weistling @ 02/11/2014 04:37 PM     DC Circuit  

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