The Obama Administration seems committed to redefining the parameters of the Bush era “War on Terror,” by ensuring that terrorist suspects are detained and prosecuted in full compliance with both domestic and international legal standards. Such a commitment to the rule of law by the Obama Administration has entailed a re-evaluation of the Guantanamo detention policy, as well as a redrawing of the current prosecution system available for terrorist suspects.
The lingering issue that the Obama Administration will have to address in the future years is how to design the best system for the prosecution of terrorist suspects. Any prosecution system will have to reconcile the tension between ensuring that terrorist suspects are incapacitated from harming American interests while providing them with blind justice and meaningful legal rights. The Obama Administration has realized that the desire to curb terrorism must yield to our country’s commitment to an even, unbiased justice system. I firmly believe that terrorist suspects should be prosecuted in federal district courts, and that several such jurisdictions should be designated as “specialized” for this purpose. By determining a handful of federal district courts as apt to prosecute terrorists (i.e., courts such as the D.C. District Court or the Southern District of New York, which regularly handle difficult and legally complicated cases, and which see a high number of international issues within such cases), the Obama Administration would provide terrorist suspects with the best venues for the legal adjudication of their cases. Prosecuting terrorist in all of our federal district courts could lead toward inconsistent results and potential appellate circuit court splits on issues of enormous national importance. Thus, consolidating terrorism trials in specialized jurisdictions could lead toward a uniformity of results and the development of a unique body of elaborate rules of law, consistently applied by a handful of judges in geographically isolated districts. Moreover, adjudication of terrorism cases in our district courts would eliminate the need for special military commissions, which have functioned fairly well in the recent year, but which have been criticized by many for their procedural and legal shortcomings.
Terrorist suspects are just like any other criminal suspect; their only particularity is the potential to harm American interests in a catastrophic manner. As long as terrorist suspects are detained and then meaningfully prosecuted before competent judges, our national interests will be as protected as they would have been through a military commission system or some other way of adjudication falling short of federal district court proceedings. By prosecuting terrorist suspects in federal courts, the Obama Administration would convey to the rest of the world that the United States respects the rule of law, even when dealing with high value detainees and people as dangerous as Osama bin Laden. The difficulty of prosecuting terrorist suspects in federal courts could be lessened by ensuring that the most competent prosecutors are assigned to those cases, that the investigative authorities share information and data with such prosecutors to the fullest extent, and that the best judges and jurisdictions only hear these cases.
If terrorist suspects are prosecuted in district courts, this will have a positive effect on our interrogation policies as well. In other words, if interrogators know that the potential suspects will one day face a federal judge, applying American law and procedural standards, they will likely shy away from coercive techniques, knowing that information thereby yielded would be excluded from any subsequent trials. Moreover, if terrorist suspects are prosecuted only before a handful of our federal jurisdictions, such courts will become experts in national security law, the applicability of the Geneva Conventions and other aspects of international humanitarian law, as well as detention and interrogation techniques. Thus, prosecuting terrorist suspects in highly specialized and competent federal courts would uphold our traditional rule of law, while signaling our commitment to such rule of law to the rest of the world and contributing toward the development and evolution of specialized rules of international humanitarian law, elaborated through our own courts.
Terrorist suspects are human beings and deserve a full measure of justice, just like any other criminal suspect. The military commissions, developed under the Bush Administration, are an inferior mode of justice that the Obama Administration should shy away from. Prosecution in specialized federal district courts is the only manner in which our national security interests can be protected and our legal justice system upheld.