WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rejecting Bush administration arguments, the Supreme Court reversed course and agreed Friday to review whether Guantanamo Bay detainees can use the civilian court system to challenge their indefinite confinement.
The administration argues that a new law strips courts of their jurisdiction to hear detainee cases. The justices took the action without comment along with other end-of-term orders.
In April, the court turned down an identical request, although several justices indicated they could be persuaded otherwise.
The move is highly unusual.
The court did not indicate what changed the justices' minds about considering the issue. But last week, lawyers for the detainees filed a statement from a military lawyer in which he described the inadequacy of the process the administration has put forward as an alternative to a full-blown review by civilian courts.
``This is a stunning victory for the detainees,'' said Eric M. Freedman, professor of constitutional law at Hofstra Law School, who has been advising the detainees. ``It goes well beyond what we asked for, and clearly indicates the unease up there'' at the Supreme Court.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that ``we did not think that court review at this time was necessary, but we are confident in our legal position.''
Five of the nine justices must agree to take a case that previously has been denied a hearing, according to an authoritative text on the Supreme Court.
Court officials could not find a similar instance in records going back more than 30 years where the justices first denied a petition and later agreed to hear it.
The case is expected to be heard in the fall.
In February, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a key provision of a law the Bush administration pushed through Congress last year stripping federal courts of their ability to hear the detainees' challenges to their confinement.
On April 2, the Supreme denied the detainees' request to review the February appeals court ruling.
The detainees then petitioned the court to reconsider its denial.
Dismissing the petitions would be ``a profound deprivation'' of the prisoners' right to speedy court review, lawyers for the detainees said.
The administration asked that the detainees' Supreme Court petitions be thrown out.
Many of the 375 detainees have been held at Guantanamo for five years.
In recent months, the main arena in the legal battle over the detainees has been the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The appeals court is considering how to handle the detainees' challenges to military tribunals that found them to be enemy combatants, which left them without any of the legal rights accorded prisoners of war.
The White House is considering closing Guantanamo and transferring some of the most dangerous suspects to a prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and a Navy brig in South Carolina.
The detainees' attorneys want the appeals court to allow a broad inquiry questioning the accuracy and completeness of the evidence the tribunals gathered about the detainees, most of it classified.
The Justice Department has been seeking a limited review, saying that the findings of the military tribunals are ``entitled to the highest level of deference.''
The White House has been weighing closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, which has brought global criticism of the Bush administration and condemnation from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The cases are Boumediene v. Bush, 06-1195, and Al Odah v. U.S., 06-1196.