Logistically, it has put on a huge pile of work, not just the legal questions but the logistics of suddenly handling about 200 cases relying on classified evidence, says Lamberth. ``We've never done it on this scale before,'' he said. ``If a court has one at a time, that's unusual.''
To keep some judges' calendars clear, he said, he outsourced some non-detainee cases to federal judges in Maryland and West Virginia.
The Guantánamo cases are being heard in the same courthouse opposite the National Gallery of Art where a grand jury heard the sordid details of the Monica Lewinsky affair and Judge John Sirica sorted out the Watergate scandal.
So far, none of the cases of former CIA-held captives now at Guantánamo has had full-blown habeas hearings. Those cases are certain to be even more complex as intelligence agencies seek to shield clandestine interrogation techniques and sites from judicial scrutiny.
Sometimes, the U.S. defense lawyers who have volunteered their services have the captives testify in their own defense via secure video feed. Many have not, arguing it is the government's burden to defend the detention.
The recent opening arguments in the case of Fouad al Rabia v Barack Obama was a case in point.
Rabia listened over a sometimes-muted telephone line from Guantánamo while Justice Department attorney Sarah Maloney stood in the marble and wood-paneled court and defended his seven-year detention.
Military-intelligence agents concluded, she said, that the father of four with a master's degree from the Daytona Beach campus of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University was a logistics and supply officer at the December 2001 battle for Tora Bora between U.S. Special Forces hunting Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda founder's fanatical followers.
Defense attorney David Cynamon argued that the logistics officer was killed in the shock-and-awe assaults on Tora Bora in Afghanistan.
Rabia did ``confess,'' Cynamon countered, adding that he told interrogators what they wanted to hear after a U.S. military program of relentless interrogation, isolation, misidentification and the misguided belief that mimicking his interrogators story was the way back to his wife and four kids in Kuwait.
Fouad would not testify. Instead, the lawyers would guide Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly through thousands of pages in the case, brought to court inside binders stamped SECRET in red to help her decide whether the Pentagon has the power to still hold him -- or to instruct President Obama's administration to arrange for his release. The judge has yet to rule.
Scholars trace the concept of a writ of habeas corpus to the time before the Magna Carta when Anglo-Saxon kings exercised an unchallenged power to banish a subject to the dungeon. In a classic U.S. habeas corpus ruling, a judge could order the captive brought before the court -- and set free on the spot.
That's difficult to do in the Guantánamo cases because none of the captives is a citizen. The detainees' release orders instruct the State Department to arrange diplomatic transfers from the Guantánamo prison camps.
The courts are also holding hearings as an Obama administration task force is deciding which of the men to let go as part of a White House mandate to close the prison camps by Jan. 22.