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Military Tribunals and Presidential Power

American Revolution to the War on Terrorism

Louis Fisher

April 2005
296 pages, 6 x 9
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1376-2, $22.50


book cover imageIn wartime, presidents are always tempted to expand their authority. But in doing so, they often reach beyond their constitutional mandate.

Although the use of military tribunals can be necessary and even effective in times of war, Louis Fisher contends that these courts present a grave danger to open government and the separation of powers. Citing the constitutional provision vesting Congress with the authority to create tribunals, Fisher addresses the threats posed by the dramatic expansion of presidential power in time of war—and the meek efforts of Congress and the judiciary to curb it.

Military Tribunals and Presidential Power is the only book to offer detailed and comprehensive coverage of these extra-legal courts, taking in the sweep of American history from colonial times to today’s headlines. Focusing on those periods when the Constitution and civil liberties have been most severely tested by threats to national security, Fisher critiques tribunals called during the presidencies of Washington, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman. He also examines other presidential actions that present military justifications to augment political power, such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus, invoking martial law, and using courts-martial to try U.S. citizens.

Fisher also analyzes how the Bush administration relied heavily on precedents set in World War II—notably the Supreme Court’s opinion regarding Nazi saboteurs, Ex parte Quirin, a case shown in recent times to have been a rush to judgment. He scrutinizes the much-publicized cases of John Walker Lindh, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Jose Padilla, Zacarias Moussaoui, and the Guantanamo detainees to reveal how the executive branch has gone far beyond the bounds of even Quirin, and he suggests that it is short-sighted to believe that what was only tolerable half a century ago should be accepted as a given today.

Fisher’s book cuts to the bone of current controversies and sounds an alarm for maintaining the checks and balances we value as a nation.

“We are in Fisher’s debt once again. His riveting account is at once authoritative and invaluable as a guide to the perplexing problem of coping with real and imagined terrorism in our time. Superb.”—Stanley Kutler, author of Abuse of Power

“Exhaustively researched and superbly well written, Fisher’s book is a ‘must read’ for any serious student of presidential power in time of war. It also could not be more timely.”—Scott L. Silliman, Executive Director, Duke University Center on Law, Ethics and National Security

“Without a doubt the definitive guide to the strange history of military justice during wartime.”—David Cole, legal affairs correspondent for The Nation and author of Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism

LOUIS FISHER is Scholar in Residence at the Constitution Project. He previously worked at the Library of Congress as Senior Specialist in Separation of Powers (Congressional Research Service) and Specialist in Constitutional Law (Law Library) and has testified before Congress fifty times. He is the author of twenty books, including Presidential War Power and The Constitution and 9/11.


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