Habeas Corpus is the legal ability of a prisoner to request that they be released from prison due to a legal or factual error in the trial or sentencing process. Article one, section nine of the US Constitution allows for a suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus during acts of rebellion or invasion. The President of the United States or Congress may only suspend Habeas Corpus if they deem that public safety may require it.
History of Habeas Corpus
The Writ of Habeas Corpus originated in England and is therefore part of English Common Law that the United States has adapted for their own purposes. In full legal texts, it is referred to as habeas corpus ad subjiciendum or ad subjiciendum et recipiendum. The writ has been suspended several times during English history with the most recent suspension happening in the 19th century.
President Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus
In the United States, there have been two notable suspensions of habeas corpus. The first came from President Lincoln in April 1861. Lincoln ordered Winfield Scott, the head of the nation’s military to arrest anyone suspected of subversive acts or speech after the Fort Sumter surrender. Several people were arrested and held during this time. In February 1862, the suspension was lifted and amnesty was given to those political prisoners no longer deemed dangerous.
President George W. Bush’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus
In October 2006, President Bush also suspended habeas corpus to anyone deemed an enemy combatant of the United States. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 granted the President authority to establish and conduct military commissions to try persons thought to be terrorists or enemy combatants. This Act was not aimed at US citizens, but only aliens detained by the United States and only those held and tried by military courts. It was instituted because of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and subsequent threats to American safety.
A Suspension of Habeas Corpus is a controversial decision because it strips away the rights given by the United States Constitution. In both suspensions in US history, the Presidents responsible felt that there would be dire consequences to the safety of American citizens if they did not do it. However, many naysayers have disagreed with this assessment. Particularly in the case of President Bush’s suspension where many felt that this Act could put the safety of our own citizens in jeopardy should they be detained unlawfully in another country.