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Pioneer Editorial: Guantanamo ruling reins in Executive

Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling should serve notice to the Bush administration that it must do something with the nearly 500 detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba.

The ruling also serves to put the brakes on an expansion of Executive Branch powers unheard of since World War II.

The court, in a 5-3 ruling, denied President Bush's plan to try detainees through military tribunals, saying that doing so violates both U.S. and international law. Thursday's ruling goes hand-in-hand with the court's ruling of two years ago which found that the administration did not have a "blank check" to lock up alleged terror suspects without any legal rights.

Setting up such military trials, not done since post-World War II days to consider war crimes, exceeds the power of the executive branch, the court said. Only Congress can do that. "The Constitution is best preserved by reliance on standards tested over time and insulated from the pressures of the moment," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in one opinion.

In countering a dissenting opinion that the ruling would "sorely hamper the president's ability to confront and defeat anew and deadly enemy," Justice Stephen Breyer writes that "the court's conclusion ultimately rests upon a single ground: Congress has not issued the Executive a 'blank check.' Indeed, Congress has denied the president the legislative authority to create military commissions of the kind at issue here. Nothing prevents the president from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary."

It is now up to Congress to decide the fate of those at Guantanamo Bay -- a process that sees an end. To allow the administration to continue to hold these suspects without trial, without counsel, without some sort of action is not only against all that the U.S. Constitution stands for but also is inhumane. The suspects might well be dangerous al-Qaeda agents, but evidence needs to be provided in a fair and impartial court, decisions made and sentences given. To hold them indefinitely doesn't make sense.

As Justice Breyer notes, "Where, as here, no emergency prevents consultation with Congress, judicial insistence upon that consultation does not weaken our nation's ability to deal with danger. To the contrary, that insistence strengthens the nation's ability to determine -- through democratic means -- how best to do so. The Constitution places its faith in those democratic means."

We agree with President Bush that Guantanamo Bay can't yet be closed and supposedly dangerous terrorists released. But neither should they be held in limbo under one person's order. Congress must decide on a process for a fair judgment and, once that's done, close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.