A lawyer for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay underwent a barrage of questions Wednesday from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, with the attorney portraying the case as a fundamental test of the U.S. system of justice.
The court plunged into the controversy over the military prison facility, where 305 prisoners are detained indefinitely in the Bush administration's war on terror.
Many of the prisoners "have been held ... for six years," attorney Seth Waxman told the justices.
Under the current system, "they have no prospect" of being able to challenge their detention in any meaningful way, said Waxman, arguing on the detainees' behalf.
Roberts and Scalia questioned whether the detainees are entitled to hearings in civilian courts.
"Show me one case" down through the centuries where circumstances similar to those at Guantanamo Bay entitled an alien to challenge his detention in civilian courts, said Scalia.
Roberts challenged Waxman's argument that the duration of detention is important.
Lawyers for the foreign detainees contend the courts must get involved to rein in the White House and Congress, which changed the law to keep the detainee cases out of U.S. courts after earlier Supreme Court rulings. The most recent legislation, last year's Military Commissions Act, strips federal courts of their ability to hear detainee cases.
Waxman, the top Supreme Court lawyer in the Clinton administration, said that "after six years of imprisonment without meaningful review, it is time for a court to decide the legality of" their confinement, Waxman said.
The detainee case drew several hundred spectators who lined up outside the courthouse in a light snow. About 50 had camped out overnight for a chance to get inside to hear the arguments in the third case the Supreme Court has heard since 2004 on the administration's detention program.
Meanwhile, two dozen protesters, some in orange prison-like jumpsuits, chanted and waved signs.
"Restore habeas corpus!" they intoned, referring to the right to court review of the legality of detention, the heart of the argument before the high court. (MORE)