From NBC's Pete Williams
Despite a plea from the Obama administration to stay on the sidelines, the U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to jump squarely into the legal battle over bringing Guantanamo detainees into the United States.
It's the first time the court has agreed to review an Obama policy in the war on terror.
The court said it will hear a constitutional challenge brought by 13 Chinese Muslims now held at Guantanamo Bay but no longer considered enemy combatants. They've asked, and the U.S. has agreed, that they not be sent back to China out of fear that they'd be tortured. But, so far, no other country has agreed to take them. Given all that, a federal judge ruled a year ago that because the government had no basis on which to detain them, and with no other country willing to take them, they should be released into the United States.
At the urging of the Bush administration, a federal appeals court reversed that order, ruling that the federal courts have no authority to order Congress or the administration to admit anyone to the country. Only the executive branch and Congress, the appeals court said, have the authority to decide who's admissible and who's excludable.
Today, the Supreme Court agreed to take up an appeal by the 13 Muslims. The Obama Justice Department had urged the justices to stay out of the fight. The appeals court got it right, argued Obama Solicitor General Elena Kagan. The fact that the 13 are stuck in Guantanamo, she said, is not because they're unlawfully detained. Instead, it's because the federal government doesn't want to let them in, and that's not the business of the federal courts.