Jonathan Salem Baskin

Habeas Corpus

Today, a right was suspended.

Habeas corpus  translates into “body presented” and it means that if you get arrested, you’ll get your day in court (you can demand it). It’s one of the few protections we Common Folk have from getting thrown into dungeons and left to rot, being impressed into military service, or getting our heads or limbs sliced off by aggrieved aristocrats who consider themselves both judge and jury. It’s a common law thing so, in America, it’s not a declared right, per se, but the Constitution says it can’t be  suspended…unless required by rebellion or invasion. This happened for the first time on April 27, 1861, when President Lincoln suspended it in Maryland, in response to fears of losing the state to the Confederacy. When the circuit court overturned his decision, he ignored it and, on this day that year, extended the suspension to Washington, DC.

Congress supported the action, and within the year wrote the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act to authorize the President to suspend it anywhere and anytime he felt it necessary. The Union government also established military tribunals to try and convict individuals found guilty of insurrection or treason. Nobody knows how many people were arrested and sentenced during this time. The practice fell out of use after the war, but was resurrected again in Hawaii during WWII (for fear of Japanese sympathizers), and then again nationally in 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 moved Congress to give the President the right to detain  non-citizens suspected of terror involvement indefinitely, and the Bush Administration subsequently established military courts and a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. America also started abducting suspected terrorists/sympathizers from around the world and shipping them off to be imprisoned and/or tried secretly, whether in our military courts or those of friendly third-party countries.

I guess some rights are less common than others.