No one seriously claims that the Supreme Court’s 1872 decision in United States v. Klein is a model of clarity. Justice Field’s opinion for the Court is as enigmatic as it is intriguing, providing the only pre-2008 example of a Supreme Court decision invalidating an Act of Congress for unconstitutionally depriving the federal courts of jurisdiction. The million dollar question, of course, is why the Court so ruled, and no amount of scholarship, no matter the quality of the analysis or the intellectual abilities of the author, has managed to settle the issue to any meaningful degree.
It is impossible to have a meaningful debate over whether a civilian court or a military commission is a more appropriate forum for trying terrorism suspects so long as serious questions remain over whether the commissions may constitutionally exercise jurisdiction over particular offenses and/or offenders.
The “war” on terrorism may never end. At a minimum, it shows no signs of ending any time soon. Although this reality is an unpleasant one for many civil libertarians today, it is also difficult to refute. Just what will mark the conclusion of hostilities? It seems unlikely that there is an entity whose “surrender” would mark an obvious “end” of combat. Even if there were such an entity, there do not appear to be clearly identifiable objectives that allow for the successful completion of the conflict. There is no physical territory to conquer, no clear leadership structure to topple, no Reichstag over which to fly a foreign flag.