WASHINGTON (AP) - No one is sure when, where or how, but one day soon defense lawyers will begin filing what could be hundreds of lawsuits seeking the release of foreign-born men held by the United States as potential terrorists.
The Supreme Court ruled this week that federal courts can hear the cases of nearly 600 men from more than 40 countries who are held at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The ruling pretty much stopped there, however, leaving it to other courts, the Bush administration and outside lawyers to sort out what happens next.
Practical questions include whether one court or several will hear the cases, whether numerous cases might be bundled together in one suit and even whether federal judges might set up temporary quarters at the Cuban prison camp.
"The Supreme Court didn't give much direction ... but the opinion says that each and every detainee has the right to have the lawfulness of their detention determined by a federal judge," said Jeffrey Fogel, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Fogel's New York-based group represented four Guantanamo detainees named in the Supreme Court case. Those cases and others were filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., but were on hold pending an answer from the Supreme Court on whether federal courts have jurisdiction over Guantanamo.
The high court also ruled separately Monday the government has the right to seize and hold what it calls enemy combatants, but cannot indefinitely detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants with no meaningful way for them to challenge their captivity.
"The Supreme Court accorded to terrorists, in a variety of cases this week, a number of additional rights," Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday. "We're digesting those opinions in terms of making sure that we adjust, or modify what we do, so that we accommodate the requirements as expressed by the Supreme Court."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan promised a process that meets the court's concerns. The detainees "do have a right to contest their detention," McClellan said.
McClellan also said the military will go ahead with its plan for an annual internal reviews of each Guantanmo prisoner. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that step in February.
The Guantanamo prisoners were mostly picked up in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The government says they were fighting for al-Qaida or the terrorist network's Taliban protectors in Afghanistan.
Most of the detainees have been held for more than 2 1/2 years, with little or no contact with the outside world. Most have had no access to lawyers.
The administration put the prisoners at Guantanamo on purpose, with an eye to deflecting suits over the men's captivity. The administration argued that the base was beyond the reach of American courts.
In rejecting that view, the high court's 6-3 ruling said nothing about the guilt or innocence of the men at Guantanamo, nor whether the military is holding them illegally or unconstitutionally.
The Supreme Court case grew out of suits filed by family members and others on behalf of some of the Guantanamo detainees. The named prisoners initially did not know they had lawyers or a court case.
As a first step, the ruling means U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly can go forward with the 14 cases pending in her Washington courtroom, lawyers said. Many lawyers assume other new cases will be consolidated in the same court, although there is nothing so far to stop a detainee from filing elsewhere.
Justice Department and Pentagon officials also are looking for ways to handle the hundreds of suits expected in the coming weeks. They include a proposal to move the detainees to a prison in the United States from which they could be taken to a nearby federal court.
Doing that could make the logistics of holding court hearings easier, but would pose security problems for the government.
Also this week, the Pentagon announced that a five-member tribunal will try three suspects at Guantanamo. The military trial would be the first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War II.