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Habeas what?

Battleboro Reformer | November 26 2005

The foundation of American law is the writ of habeas corpus.
The "Great Writ," established in English common law by the Magna Carta in 1215, established the principle that anyone in police custody must either be charged with a crime or be set free.

That principle has survived more than 200 years in American law, except for two glaring instances when it was suspended -- Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War so his administration could arbitrarily imprison suspected Southern sympathizers, and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II so his administration could detain 70,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps.

Now, we are in the midst of the third instance of the "great writ" being flouted by a president.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration has imprisoned thousands of people, most of whom have not been charged with any crime.

President Bush has long and forcefully argued that these prisoners, or "enemy combatants," as his administration has designated them, have no right to appear before a court to review the legitimacy of their detentions.

The Bush adminstration claims the right to do so under Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the Constitution, which allows for the suspension of habeas corpus "when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the Public Safety may require it."

There has been no invasion. There are no foreign troops on American soil. The nation is not in a formally declared state of war. While the Second Vermont Republic is semi-seriously talking about secession, there are no states preparing to leave the union.

So why must the most fundamental right of American jurisprudence be tampered with?

Tucked away in an defense appropriations bill passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this month was an amendment that would suspend habeas corpus for the prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It passed on a 49-42 vote.

It's easy to think that this noxious legislation only applies to a few hundred foreigners. But there is a bigger principle at work. It is the right to prevent the executive branch of our government to arbitrarily and indefinitely imprison anyone it wishes, with legal recourse. Without it, our legal system turns to ashes.

This administration has consistently abused the Constitution. The grossly misnamed Patriot Act gives the federal government wide latitude to spy on its citizens and conduct secret investigations without legal recourse. It seeks ever greater police powers in the name of fighting terrorism. The Bill of Rights means nothing to them.

We stand opposed to this assault on eight centuries of legal precedent. The president should not be allowed to pick and choose what provisions of the Constitution he wishes to obey. As a fundamental human right, habeas corpus must be preserved for everyone .


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