I’m no law expert, and as you read Today’s History Lesson, you’ll figure that out. We’re going to talk (for just a minute or two) about habeas corpus. It’s probably one of the most important rights given to the individual to protect him or her from government power. And it’s probably good to visit the topic, simply because it’s been in the news for some time as it pertains to the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.
“Habeas corpus” in Latin means something along the lines of “you must have the body” or “you shall produce the body”. It’s a legal action better known as a “writ” (hence, a “writ of habeas corpus”). If a person believes he or she is being held prisoner without just cause, that person can invoke habeas corpus. The court will then summon (with an order) those holding the person, demanding that the prisoner be brought to the court. In addition, those holding the prisoner must bring evidence that they are holding the prisoner lawfully. Failing to do so, the prisoner is to be released from custody.
Essentially, habeas corpus is the guarantee that anyone held in custody by the law will receive a day in court. If such a right were not in force, one could be incarcerated and held indefinitely without ever getting to state one’s case. In the U.S. Constitution, part of Article 1, Section 9 reads, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Again, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure it’s that part after “unless…” that has caused so much recent debate.
I believe the Bush Administration used that clause as a way to hold suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay for long periods of time without trial, which brought its lawyers into sharp debate with other lawyers. There was great disagreement over the matter of giving the protections of U.S. citizens to enemy combatants. I don’t know all the particulars, but in mid 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the Administration was, indeed, violating the rights of the prisoners there and those being held had a right to seek writs of habeas corpus.
Maybe some of you readers that know more than I will chime in and clarify some of the muddle.
Anyways…I’m almost to end of the lesson, and I’ve yet to say anything historical, so let’s go for it. On April 27, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln suspended, for the first time, habeas corpus in the state of Maryland and in parts of other states. Lincoln’s justification was obvious. The Civil War had just begun, the Union had lost Fort Sumter two weeks prior, and Maryland was full of Confederate sympathizers who were happy to aid the southern army in its efforts to overthrow the nation’s northern capital.
So Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and gave his Generals power to lock up suspected sympathizers.
Recommended Reading: Lincoln – One of the best biographies about the Civil War President available.