This paper examines the legitimacy of the US government’s argument that it must “balance liberty and security” with regard to its policy of trying enemy belligerents in military commissions rather than federal courts. I distinguish between three senses of “balance,” and argue that the policy is ambiguous between the second (internal) and third (emergency external) senses of balance. Neither line of reasoning justifies the policy, however. On the second sense, it is unjustified because it constitutes an arbitrary limitation of the rights of some for the sake of the security of others. It thus violates the government’s duty to decide questions of policy in accordance with accepted legal procedures. Alternately, if the policy is intended to be an exercise of emergency powers, then it violates what I call the government’s juridical duty to serve as a guardian of justice. I offer an alternative justification for emergency measures, one that is based on the model of self-defense. I conclude that although the exercise of military commissions in times of emergency can be justified, the current exercise is illegitimate.

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