Petitioners traveled from Germany to the United States, where they were detained and accused of committing violations of the law of war. The President appointed a military commission to try them instead of civilian courts.
Individuals who are accused of committing violations of the law of war can be tried by military tribunals instead of civilian courts.
All but one of the petitioners were self-admitted citizens of Germany, and the United States and Germany were at war. They were trained at a sabotage school in Germany, where they learned about explosives and methods of secret writing. They traveled to the United States by submarine, carrying weapons along with them, and wearing German Marine Infantry uniforms when they arrived. They were detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The President appointed a military commission to try the petitioners for offenses against the law of war and the Articles of War. The President also issued a Proclamation providing that individuals from countries at war with the United States who entered the United States through coastal or boundary defenses and are charged with sabotage, espionage, or other enumerated crimes would be subject to the law of war and jurisdiction of military tribunals.
Could the President appoint a military commission to try the petitioners and deny them access to the courts?
Yes, the President could appoint a military commission to try the petitioners and deny them access to the courts.
The Supreme Court reasoned the the President, as Commander in Chief, created the military commission under the authority conferred upon him by Congress’ Articles of War and the Espionage Act, and under his Constitutional authority as Commander in Chief (though the Supreme Court declined to decide whether the President would have this power without Congressional authorization). The Supreme Court held that the federal government had the authority to put try the petitioners in a military commission because the petitioners were charged with acts that were offenses against the law of war cognizable before a military commission, and the Constitution did not prohibit the trial. The petitioners argued that the Fifth Amendment guaranteed that they could not be tried without a grand jury indictment, and that Article III, § 2 and the Sixth Amendment guaranteed their right to trial by jury. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, finding that the procedural protections were not features of military tribunals at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.