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A debate in Congress over habeas corpus
San Francisco Chronicle


January 30, 2007

One of the Bush administration's most far-reaching assertions of government power was revealed quietly recently when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified that habeas corpus - the right to go to federal court and challenge one's imprisonment - is not protected by the Constitution.

"The Constitution doesn't say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas," Gonzales told Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 17.




Gonzales acknowledged that the Constitution declares "habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless ... in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." But he insisted that "there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution."

Specter was incredulous, asking how the Constitution could bar the suspension of a right that didn't exist - a right, he noted, that was first recognized in medieval England as a shield against the king's power to dispatch troublesome subjects to royal dungeons.

Later in the hearing, Gonzales described habeas corpus as "one of our most cherished rights" and noted that Congress had protected that right in the 1789 law that established the federal court system. But he never budged from his position on the absence of constitutional protection - a position that seemingly would leave Congress free to reduce habeas corpus rights or repeal them altogether.

Gonzales did not propose any such drastic rollback and devoted most of his discussion to fending off senatorial attacks on a law signed by President Bush last October. That law included a provision stripping federal courts of authority to hear habeas corpus suits by noncitizens classified by the government as "enemy combatants." Specter and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, are sponsoring legislation to undo the restriction.

But critics on both ends of the ideological spectrum said the attorney general was claiming a broader and more chilling power.

"This is the key protection that people have if they're held in violation of the law," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who has criticized the administration's actions on civil liberties. "If there's no habeas corpus, and if the government wants to pick you or me off the street and hold us indefinitely, how do we get our release?"

Chemerinsky was joined by Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and former Justice Department official under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

If Gonzales' view prevailed, Kmiec said, "one of the basic protections of human liberty against the powers of the state would be embarrassingly absent from our constitutional system."

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said this week that Gonzales stood by his remarks but was asserting only that the text of the Constitution does not guarantee habeas corpus. The attorney general recognizes, Roehrkasse said, that the Supreme Court has declared "the Constitution protects (habeas corpus) as it existed at common law" in England. Any such rights, he added, would not apply to foreigners held as enemy combatants.

Habeas corpus was recognized in English law at least as early as the Magna Carta, in 1215, and perhaps earlier. In the United States, it refers to bringing a prisoner's case before a federal judge, who has the power to order the government to release anyone who is being held illegally.

It has become an issue in Bush's efforts to hold military captives at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with little or no access to civilian courts. The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that that those prisoners could file habeas corpus claims in court, rejecting administration arguments that inmates held outside the United States had no such right. That ruling was based on the court's interpretation of laws passed by Congress and did not discuss whether Guantanamo inmates had a constitutional right to habeas corpus.

The distinction is potentially crucial, because Congress, in the law signed last October, prohibited federal courts from reviewing habeas corpus suits by Guantanamo prisoners or any other noncitizens held as enemy combatants. The law's validity depends on whether the Supreme Court concludes that the prisoners' constitutional rights are being violated.


E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko(at)
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