Fundamental to almost any democracy, a writ of habeas corpus is widely considered one of the most basic protections citizens have against unchecked state power. While habeas corpus is a fundamental component of the U.S. Constitution, its meaning and importance is not always widely understood by the general public. Here’s a look at not only what habeas corpus is, but why it is so important in today’s democracies.
What is habeas corpus?
Habeas corpus is a Latin phrase that literally means “produce the body.” A writ of habeas corpus is a summons, applied for by the prisoner or by somebody on his or her behalf, and is addressed to the person or agency (i.e., a prison) holding that prisoner. A writ of habeas corpus demands that the custodian produce the prisoner before the court with proof that the custodian has authority to detain the prisoner. Essentially, habeas corpus gives prisoners the right to ask a court to release them early or change the conditions of their detention if his or her detention is potentially unlawful. Getting a writ of habeas corpus has no bearing on whether the prisoner is guilty or not guilty. Instead, it is used to establish whether the state has the authority to actually detain the prisoner in question.
Why it matters
Habeas corpus is one of the most important checks on state power that citizens of many democracies currently have. Without habeas corpus, the government would essentially have the right to imprison citizens without charging them or bringing them to trial for indefinite periods of time. In countries that do not enjoy strong habeas corpus protections, for example, it is not uncommon for individuals to be detained and imprisoned for months and even years without being charged with a crime.
How it came about
The essential idea of the writ of habeas corpus was set down in the Magna Carta, which was written in England in the 12th century. The Magna Carta helped establish a number of rights that have since become recognized as foundational to democracies around the world. Among those rights was a guarantee that the monarch could not imprison people or seize their land without having lawful reasons for doing so.
Habeas corpus was also written into the U.S. Constitution, meaning that the protections provided by a writ of habeas corpus are considered the “law of the land” in the U.S. In other words, state and federal laws cannot violate a person’s right to seek a writ of habeas corpus.
Can it be suspended?
At the same time, however, there have been periods in U.S. history where habeas corpus has been suspended. The U.S. Constitution allows for the suspension of habeas corpus “when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.” During the War of 1812, for example, General (and later President) Andrew Jackson controversially suspended habeas corpus in New Orleans and began mass arrests. About half a century later, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in many states as a public safety measure during the Civil War.
Habeas corpus is one of the most important protections citizens have against state power. While this protection is many centuries old, it is one that continues to have a major impact on government, justice, and human rights in the 21st century.