The Court is mindful of the extraordinary importance of the Government’s efforts to safeguard the country from terrorism. In light of the high stakes of those efforts as well as the executive branch’s expertise, courts undoubtedly owe the political branches a great deal of deference in the area of national security. See Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 130 S. Ct. 2705, 2711 (2010). Moreover, these same considerations counsel particular attention to the Court’s obligation to avoid unnecessary constitutional questions in this context. Cf. Ashwander v. Tenn. Valley Auth., 297 U.S. 288, 347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring) (“The Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of.”). Nevertheless, the Constitution places affirmative limits on the power of the Executive to act, and these limits apply in times of peace as well as times of war. See, e.g., Ex parte Milligan, 72 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2, 125-26 (1866). Heedlessly to refuse to hear constitutional challenges to the Executive’s conduct in the name of deference would be to abdicate this Court’s responsibility to safeguard the rights it has sworn to uphold.
And this Court gives appropriate and due deference to the executive and legislative branches–and understands the limits of its own (and their) role(s). But due deference does not eliminate the judicial obligation to rule on properly presented constitutional questions. Courts must safeguard core constitutional rights. A long line of Supreme Court precedent adheres to that fundamental principle in unequivocal language. Although it is true that there are scattered cases–primarily decided during World War II–in which the Supreme Court sanctioned undue deference to the executive and legislative branches on constitutional questions, those cases are generally now considered an embarrassment (e.g., Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) (upholding the internment of Japanese Americans based on wartime security concerns)), or referred to by current members of the Supreme Court (for instance, Justice Scalia) as “wrong” (e.g., Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942) (allowing for the military detention and execution of an American citizen detained on U.S. soil)). Presented, as this Court is, with unavoidable constitutional questions, it declines to step aside.
Today, Judge Forrest permanently enjoined enforcement of a portion of the National Defense Authorization Act, a federal law President Obama signed on December 31, 2011, authorizing the government to detain persons, including U.S. citizens, who “substantial[ly] support” Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or their “associated forces.” Judge Forrest had issued a preliminary injunction in May, and the ruling today, which is 112 pages, follows similar reasoning. She was particularly forceful in rejecting the Government’s argument that the Court should “essentially ‘stay out of it’–that is, exercise deference to the executive and legislative branches and decline to rule on the statute’s constitutionality”: