Habeas Corpus and the Use of Military Tribunals
In America Under the Threat of Terrorism
It was on this date one hundred forty two years ago (April 25, 1861), that President Abraham Lincoln sent a letter to Lt. General Winfield Scott authorizing the suspension of “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus” . Lincoln had been president for less than two months and was facing, what was up to that time and arguably may still be the greatest threat to the survival of the United States since the Founding Fathers launched this “Great Experiment”. Only eleven days earlier Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, had to surrender the fort to the Confederate Army. Lincoln was reluctant to issue such an order but had done so as he faced the very real possibility that the Maryland legislature would convene and “[t]ake action to arm the people of that state against the people of the United States” .
Thus began the first of several occasions in our nation’s history where a president when faced with a “clear and present danger” to our national security has had to balance fulfilling his oath to “[p]reserve, protect and defend the Constitution…” with the “privilege” to have any detainment reviewed by a judge or magistrate of competent jurisdiction.
How far may law enforcement officials go in compromising civil liberties to enhance national security? What does the Constitution say with respect to the suspension of the civil liberties in times of national emergency? How has the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the constitution with respect to the suspension of habeas corpus? Few citizens would disagree that national security is a legitimate function of government. First and foremost, our national government is responsible for the protection of life, then liberty. The most ardent champions of the Bill of Rights concede that it would be foolish to treat civil liberties as inviolable when the lives of innocent thousands are at stake. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, dissenting in a free speech case, gave these words of warning regarding civil liberties:
“[T]he choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
How then do we balance this legitimate function of government with the government’s responsibility to preserve and protect our liberty?
With the recent “war” on terrorism our government has moved to curtail and, in some cases, to deny United States citizens their constitutional rights to due process. The delicate balance between the fundamental right to the due process of law and national security is the focus of this research paper and is structured as follows:
• Introduction to Habeas Corpus
• A Brief History of...