Thursday, June 19, 2008

Habeas Corpus Illustrated

The recent Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush has given rise to a great deal of dishonest screeching and caterwauling from right-wing pundits.

The fundamental issue -- what habeas corpus means and what it doesn't -- deserves to be clarified. It does not require legal expertise to understand these matters.

Suppose the president -- any president, whether Bush or his successor -- is given false information indicating you are not an American citizen and that you are engaged in terrorist activities. Suppose the incriminating information is merely mistaken; no conscious dishonesty has been involved in its collection or application.

Prior to Boumediene, the president could have you arrested and held in Gitmo upon the basis of this false information. Indefinitely.

Thanks to the ruling, this is where habeas corpus comes in -- and this is why habeas corpus is in the Constitution (see section 9, clause 2).

Exercising your habeas corpus right entails appearing before a court of law and showing that a mistake has been made. It is the step where you would produce your birth certificate, driver's license, voter registration, marriage license, many consecutive years of utility bill payments, paycheck stubs, and other such documentation illustrating that, for whatever reason, you are not the person the authorities thought you were.

With habeas corpus, you can go to court to make the singular point: you have the wrong person, and here's the proof.

Without habeas corpus, you can sit in a cell until the president decides to let you out.

Habeas corpus is as fundamental as it gets. It constitutes a really bright line separating free societies from the other kind.

Further reading: here's a good summary of the Boumediene ruling, which goes into more detail and addresses many a nuance I've not even tried to cover here.

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