The Great Writ of Habeas Corpus

A few weeks ago, when I introduced ACLU executive director Anthony Romero at a Cato Book Forum, I began by asking

which right the American Founders considered most basic, that is, indispensable to securing all the others. Is it the right to property, which Arthur Lee described as “the guardian of every other right,” because without it we are all at the mercy of whoever controls all the resources? Is it the right to keep and bear arms, without which resistance to the state is rendered toothless? Is it, as Thomas Jefferson said, the right to trial by jury that protects citizens from the arbitrary power of the state? Is it the case that, as Winston Churchill said – not an American Founder, of course, but always good for a quote – “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize”? Or could it be the writ of habeas corpus, known as the Great Writ, which in 1969 the Supreme Court called “the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action”?

Afterward, my smarter colleague said, “It’s habeas.”

So that’s why it’s good that the ACLU has declared today a “Day of Action to Restore Law and Justice.”  ACLU members and others are rallying on Capitol Hill and visiting congressional offices asking Congress to restore the right of habeas corpus.

One of the most frightening elements of the powers asserted by the Bush administration in the war on terror is the power it claims to arrest American citizens and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge. The conservatives of the American Freedom Agenda have joined the ACLU in calling for repeal of the Military Commissions Act and restoration of the right of habeas corpus. Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein petitioned Congress not to curtail habeas corpus as it considered the Military Commissions Act last fall, to no avail. This issue will provide a good test of the proposition that divided government is a good thing. Will the Democratic Congress do the right thing and restore our constitutional rights?