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The Supreme Court could hand President-elect Barack Obama a delicate problem in the coming days: What to do with a suspected al-Qaida sleeper agent who is the only person detained in this country as an enemy combatant?

Ali al-Marri has been held in virtual isolation in a Navy brig near Charleston, S.C., for nearly 5 1/2 years. He is challenging President George W. Bush's authority to subject a legal resident of the United States to indefinite military detention without being charged or tried.

The justices are expected to consider al-Marri's case when they meet in private on Tuesday. If they agree to hear arguments, over the Bush administration's opposition, they could say so the same day.

Bush's legal team has claimed authority for such detentions and has argued aggressively for it in court papers.

But the case would not be scheduled for argument until sometime in the late winter or early spring, during Obama's first months in office.

Al-Marri's fate will wind up in Obama's hands in any event, but a decision by the court to hear his challenge would force the new president to confront the issue quickly.

In the event the dispute makes it as far as a court hearing, the new administration's lawyers would have to argue the same basic position urged by Bush's team, despite Obama's repeated criticism during the presidential campaign that Bush was too aggressive in asserting executive authority.


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