Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Habeas corpus is the legal concept that a prisoner has a right to challenge the basis of confinement -- to demand that the government produce a valid reason for detention. The concept was developed in England during the late Middle Ages, and takes its name from the first two Latin words of the writ filed for a prisoner's release (a phrase translated variously as "You have the body'' and "Produce the body.'')
Habeas corpus formed a part of the American legal system from colonial times, and it was the only specific right incorporated in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 9 states, "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." The suspension of habeas corpus allows an agency to hold a person without a charge. Habeas corpus has been suspended a number of times, most notably by Abraham Lincoln during the early days of the Civil War.
Habeas corpus became a subject of renewed controversy after the Sept. 11th attacks. When the Bush administration created a system of military tribunals for dealing with terrorism subjects in 2002, it asserted that "illegal non-combatants'' fell outside of the Geneva Conventions and were not entitled to habeas corpus. That view was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2006. Congress, then controlled by Republicans, responded by passing the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions filed by detainees challenging the bases for their confinement. Instead, such challenges were to be governed by the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, which allowed detainees to appeal decisions of the military tribunals to the District of Columbia Circuit, but only under circumscribed procedures, including a presumption that the evidence before the military tribunal was accurate and complete.
In a 5 to 4 decision issued on June 12, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that approach to be unconstitutional, declaring that foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba have the right to challenge their detention there in federal courts.
A list of resources from around the Web about Habeas Corpus as selected by researchers and editors of The New York Times.