In a decision issued today and available here, Judge Lamberth grants Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker a writ of habeas corpus and vacates the contempt finding made by military commissions judge Air Force Colonel Vance Spath.
Our (somewhat extensive) prior coverage is available here.
Judge Lamberth concludes:
Judge Spath summarily convicted General Baker of criminal contempt and sentenced him for that criminal contempt. Contempt is an offense under Chapter 47A. But Judge Spath’s actions were unlawful because only a military commission acting through its regularly constituted members is authorized to convict a person of any offense under Chapter 47A. And a military judge is not a member of a military commission nor is he “the military commission” within the meaning of that chapter. For this reason the Court will GRANT General Baker’s Petition, issue the writ he requests, and vacate his conviction.
Op. at 27. This conclusion turns on an important difference between the contempt power of a courts-martial and that of a commission. Article 48, 10 U.S.C. § 848, (the court-martial power) begins:
A judge detailed to a court-martial, a court of inquiry, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, a military Court of Criminal Appeals, a provost court, or a military commission may punish for contempt. . .
While 10 U.S.C. § 950t(31) (the commission power) begins:
A military commission under this chapter may punish for contempt. . .
When we last looked at the the ongoing habeas litigation involving Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker (chief of the Military Commissions Defense Organization) who was found in contempt by Air Force Colonel Vance Spath (chief judge of the Air Force and a judge on the military commissions) – the #6 Military Justice Story of 2017 – it was to consider a renewed request for habeas and a motion by commissions prosecutors to obtain the audio recording of the related commission hearings.
Since then the DOJ filed a response (available here) to Baker’s renewed request, and Baker filed a reply brief (available here).
While the DOJ’s response leads with arguments that the habeas petition is now moot and that Baker failed to exhaust administrative remedies, both of these new briefs give real attention to what I believe is the most important issue in this case: whether Baker’s conduct actually constitutes contempt as the term applies to the Guantanamo commissions. As I discussed here and here, the contempt power of the Guantanamo commissions was narrowly defined by Congress and Baker’s conduct does not clearly (or even remotely, I think) meet that definition.
The DOJ’s brief, however, significantly misinterprets the hierarchy of rules in the military justice system and thereby reaches the opposite conclusion.
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An interesting development in the ongoing habeas litigation involving Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker (chief of the Military Commissions Defense Organization) who was found in contempt by Air Force Colonel Vance Spath (chief judge of the Air Force and a judge on the military commissions).
Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg reports here that commissions prosecutors filed a motion to release the audio of the commissions proceedings on October 31 and November 1, 2017. The allegedly (but not actually, as discussed here) contemptuous actions of General Baker occurred on October 31, and the contempt hearing itself (where General Baker was not allowed to defend himself) occurred on November 1. The motion to release the audio is not yet available on the commissions website, but Rosenberg has a copy and posted it here. It states, in part:
It is the Prosecution’s recollection that, on 31 October 2017, during the course of Brigadier General Baker’s refusal to obey the Commission’s lawful orders he scoffed and audibly laughed in a contemptuous manner in response to the clear orders given by the Commission to rescind his release of defense counsel. This behavior, coupled with failure to approach the podium when addressing the court and his refusal to take the witness stand when called by the Commission, was consistent with his general deportment of defiance and disrespect before the Commission throughout the proceedings.
Mot. at 3.
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Last month, Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker – chief of the Military Commissions Defense Organization – was found in contempt by Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, who is the chief judge of the Air Force and a judge on the military commissions. Spath punished Baker with 21 days confinement and a $1,000 fine. Baker served three days of that confinement in quarters before the commissions convening authority deferred the rest, and then ultimately disapproved both the confinement and the fine.
The basis of the contempt finding was General Baker’s refusal to appear as a witness to answer questions by Spath about the release of three civilian defense counsel from the case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri (who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of USS Cole). I analyzed the finding in this post, and concluded that Baker’s conduct does not constitute contempt as the term is defined by Congress in 10 U.S.C. § 950t(31) (the commissions contempt power).
After the contempt finding, and while still confined to quarters, General Baker filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court for the District of Columbia. I analyzed the petition in this post and concluded that it was a loser. Judge Royce C. Lamberth heard oral argument on the petition and deferred ruling (after the convening authority deferred the confinement and Baker was released).
Last Friday, General Baker filed a supplemental brief. A copy is available here.
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In a press release dated yesterday and available here, the Office of Military Commissions Convening Authority announced that the finding of contempt against Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker by Air Force Military Judge Colonel Vance Spath – a finding that I analyzed in this post and concluded exceeded Spath’s statutory authority – is correct in law and fact.
The convening authority (Harvey Rishikof) disapproved the punishment of confinement for 21 days and a $1,000 fine. BGen Baker served three of those days of confinement in his quarters at Guantanamo before the remainder was deferred.
The convening authority also announced his intent to refer the matter for an ethics review.
The full text of the release is after the jump.
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Here is a link to a notice filed by the Government in Baker v. Spath, et al., informing the court that:
Shortly before 1 p.m. on November 3, 2017, the Convening Authority sua sponte deferred the remaining term of Petitioner’s sentence of confinement pending final action by the Convening Authority on the contempt findings. See Rule For Military Commission 1101(c). The deferral is effective immediately and notice of the Convening Authority’s decision has been served on Petitioner.
Earlier today I noted that BGen Baker filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking release from confinement to quarters after being found in contempt by military commission judge Colonel Spath in connection with a dispute over the release of civilian attorneys representing Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of USS Cole.
As I wrote in this post, BGen Baker’s actions do not meet the statutory definition of contempt applicable to military commissions.
Since then I’ve had a chance to read the brief filed on Baker’s behalf in support of the habeas petition and – while I still believe that Baker’s conduct is not contempt – I think the petition is a loser.
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A reader provided this link to a draft transcript of yesterday’s contempt proceedings in the al Nashiri military commission at Guantanamo, during which Air Force Military Judge Colonel Vance Spath found Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker in contempt. A draft transcript of the proceedings that precipitated the contempt proceedings is available here.
General Baker has since petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus.
Having reviewed both transcripts, the applicable Rule for Military Commissions 809 (which is substantially identical to Rule for Courts-Martial 809), and the underlying statute 10 U.S.C. § 950t(31) (which is significantly different from Article 48, 10 U.S.C. § 848), I am pretty confident of two things:
First, what General Baker did is not contempt within the meaning of the statute.
Second, I warned about this.
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Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker – chief of the Military Commissions Defense Organization – who yesterday was found in contempt by Air Force Military Judge Colonel Vance Spath and ordered confined to quarters, has filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and this request for emergency expedited consideration, in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Update (1820 eastern):
The petition was heard this afternoon and PACER has the following entry:
11/02/2017 Minute Entry for proceedings held before Judge Royce C. Lamberth: Miscellaneous Hearing held on 11/2/2017 in re PETITION for Writ of Habeas Corpus. Oral arguments heard and the matter has been submitted. Miscellaneous Hearing continued to 11/3/2017 at 02:00 PM in Courtroom 15 before Judge Royce C. Lamberth. (Court Reporter Janice Dickman) (nbn) (Entered: 11/02/2017)
Marine Corps Brigadier General John Baker – chief of the Military Commissions Defense Organization – was ordered into confinement today by Air Force Military Judge Colonel Vance Spath, who found the General in contempt
for in connection with the release of three civilian defense counsel from the case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri (who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of USS Cole).
Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reports here that:
The USS Cole case judge Wednesday found the Marine general in charge of war court defense teams guilty of contempt for refusing to follow his orders and sentenced him to 21 days confinement and to pay a $1,000 fine.
. . .
In court Wednesday, Baker attempted to protest that the war court meant to try alleged foreign terrorists had no jurisdiction over him, a U.S. citizen. Spath refused to let him speak and ordered him to sit down.
“There are things I want to say, and you are not allowing me to say them,” Baker told the judge.
Spath replied, “This is not a pleasant decision,” calling the proceedings neither “fun” nor “lighthearted.”
. . .
The judge said in court that a senior official at the Pentagon, Convening Authority Harvey Rishikof, would review his contempt finding and sentence. Meantime, however, he ordered court bailiffs to arrange for the general to be confined to his quarters — a room in a trailer at Camp Justice, behind the courtroom — until Rishikof acted or found a different place.
Rishikof had approved the site provisionally, Spath said, and was permitting Baker to have internet and phone communications at his quarters.
Additional details about the release of the three civilian attorneys is available in this report (also from Miani Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg).