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Habeas Corpus



     Among the thousands of messages expressing regret at my dropping out of the presidential race were some from people who wanted to give me their dog so that it could become First Dog. Some even included pictures of mutts of various size and race, looking sad and disappointed. I regret to reply: If you want to get rid of your dog, take it to the pound.
     I am sorry not to be in Washington for what promises to be an important debate. The subject: Habeas corpus. I thought it had been settled. From a vague statement in Carta Magna (1215), it developed as an attempt to protect individuals imprisoned by the Privy Council of King Henry VII (1485-1509). The Petition of Right (1628) presented by Parliament to King Charles I included habeas corpus. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 established it firmly in Common Law, and the American colonists were enthusiastic, including it in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. I assumed that meant that a person could not be held in prison without trial in a reasonable (?) time.
     Suddenly this dormant issue has been aroused by the issue of "secret evidence," which has led the Democratic Whip in Congress, David Bonior, and Tom Campbell, a Republican Congressman and once a Stanford Law Professor, to join in sponsoring a bill to clarify the issue. Apparently "secret evidence" has allowed several individuals to be kept in prison for years without trial. The final decision may be historic.
     It turns out that Habeas Corpus is a serious issue in many countries, including France. There a former Air Force General, Jean-Pierre Chamouton, was held in prison on unspecified charges. It was finally revealed that he had been denounced by an employee he had fired. The French government released him, but without any apology or compensation. Naturally he is bitter to see his distinguished career end in this way.
     This sounds like a variety of McCarthyism. Ad hominem accusations are used in all kinds of disputes. To the charge that Elian's grandmothers acted improperly when they met him in Miami, the Cuban government retorts that the uncle with whom Elian is staying has a police record for drunk driving. He replies that he will not allow Elian to be taken from him, and will apparently barricade himself inside his house to prevent it or to block a trial leading to his deportation to Cuba. Is this a Habeas Corpus case?
     Seriously, this is a basic issue in all the countries of the world and a test of democracy. Has the Endowment for Democracy studied it? Larry Diamond can tell us.
     In fact, that is not the case. The Constitution says "Habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion, the public Safety may require it." The Constitution failed to say who may suspend the Constitution, causing a controversy during the Civil War when Lincoln suspended it. The whole issue is still not clear.

Ronald Hilton - 2/10/00


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