The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 2 and 3

2:  The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.  3:  No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

The Great Writ.  The writ of habeas corpus, protected in Article I, Section 9, clause 2, is often regarded as the cornerstone of the rule of law in Anglo-American jurisprudence.  Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist 84, approvingly quotes Blackstone that habeas corpus is the “ bulwark of the British constitution,” in that it prevents the “dangerous engine of arbitrary government” that comes from “confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten.”

Some historians trace the writ back to Magna Charta, although more definitive evidence shows a gradual emergence under the common law, culminating in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, during the reign of Charles II.  As Hamilton’s comment shows, the Framers were well aware of the writ.  Note that the Constitution does not “create” the writ; rather, Article I, Section 9, assumes the existence of the writ, but provides for its limited suspension.

Congress early confirmed the federal courts’ jurisdiction to issue the writ in the Judiciary Act of 1789, though the scope of the jurisdiction has changed over time.  It is even plausible, though not without doubt in light of 19th century precedent, that the power to issue writs of habeas corpus is so tied to the essential role of the federal courts that they could issue writs of habeas corpus even if Congress had not affirmatively recognized that power.

The writ is commonly said to be an instrument only to test the constitutionality of the detention, not to adjudicate the guilt or innocence of a detainee.  In other words, it is not the same as a right to appeal a conviction, but a “collateral attack” on the right of the government to detain the prisoner at all.  In some fashion, though, habeas corpus is broader than an appeal.  Rights of appeal are usually limited in time.  Petitions for habeas corpus traditionally were not so limited and could be brought repeatedly, years after trial.

There are two areas where the use of habeas corpus has become controversial in the last few decades.  One is the use of federal courts to challenge state criminal proceedings, especially in death penalty cases.  The other is the applicability of the writ to detainees in military custody.

As to state criminal proceedings, the problem began with the Supreme Court’s “incorporation” into the 14th Amendment of criminal procedure protections in the Bill of Rights.  This process, principally during the Warren Court, extended the federal courts’ supervisory powers over state court proceedings.  Justice Frankfurter as early as 1953 warned of the writ’s “possibilities for evil as well as good,” in light of the roughly 400 to 500 habeas petitions brought in federal court by persons in state custody.  By the end of the Warren Court, that number increased to 12,000 per year.  It continued to climb until the Rehnquist Court in the 1990s began to stem the deluge.

Today, habeas petitions are still a favorite pastime of “jailhouse lawyers,” as well as of attorneys who represent inmates with various complaints, from prison overcrowding or medical care to more individualized concerns about ineffective assistance of counsel in capital cases.  But federal laws and Supreme Court decisions now require petitioners to meet stiffer tests for such collateral review.  In part these restrictions have been justified by the perceived greater due process protections in state criminal proceedings compared to 50 years ago.  In part it is the conscious institutional desire of the Rehnquist and Roberts Court majorities to shift more business out of the federal courts into the state courts.  It is the latter, after all, who are the courts of “general jurisdiction” in our federal system.  In part it is simply the federal judges’ impatience with the sheer volume of repeated and frivolous petitions.  Even before the floodgates opened, only a very small percentage (6%) of petitions were found to have merit.  As so frequently happens, the increase in quantity over the years led to a further decrease in quality.

Regarding jurisdiction over people detained by the military, the writ has a checkered past.  Early in the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ in a portion of Maryland (a de facto imposition of martial law).  In 1861, Chief Justice Taney issued the writ to the military jailer of a Maryland secessionist arrested for destroying railroad bridges.  When the military commander ignored the writ, the Chief Justice, in Ex parte Merryman, denounced Lincoln’s action, arguing that Article I, Section 9, dealt with limitations on Congress’s powers.  Therefore, only Congress could suspend the writ.

In classic implied executive powers fashion, Lincoln responded that the Constitution did not specify which branch could suspend the writ, only the conditions under which it could be suspended.  Moreover, the President could act due to the emergency involved.  Both Lincoln and his attorney general, Edward Bates, declared that the judiciary was incapable of dealing adequately with organized rebellion.  Bates, in his more detailed opinion, pointedly reminded the Court that the executive was not subordinate to the judiciary, but one of three coordinate branches of government.  The President took an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” Bates asserted, and the courts were too weak to accomplish that task.

In 2008, the Supreme Court decided Boumediene v. Bush.  There, Justice Kennedy, in a 5-4 opinion, declared portions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 unconstitutional, most significantly the portion that denied habeas corpus review to Guantanamo detainees.  Aside from a host of constitutional and practical problems with the Court’s opinion, particularly troubling was the Court’s extension of the writ to people outside the sovereignty of the U.S.  To do so, the Court had to distort the traditional Anglo-American understanding that the writ applied only within the nation’s territory.

While the writ has long applied to procedures of military courts, the Court previously made clear that it did not apply to acts of such courts outside the U.S.  Thus, in Johnson v. Eisentrager in 1950, the Court, speaking through Justice Jackson, rejected a habeas petition from German prisoners who had been convicted of war crimes by an American military commission and were held at an American military prison in the American occupation zone in postwar Germany.  The Eisentrager Court found “no instance where a court, in this or any other country where the writ is known, has issued it on behalf of an alien enemy, who, at no relevant time and in no stage of his captivity, has been within its territorial jurisdiction.”

Where Justice Jackson and others feared to tread, Justice Kennedy rushed in.  As Justice Scalia wrote in dissent in Boumediene, what drove the Court’s opinion was “neither the meaning of the Suspension Clause, nor the principles of our precedents, but rather an inflated sense of judicial supremacy.”  Precisely the attitude that President Lincoln and Attorney General Bates had emphatically rejected in their response to Chief Justice Taney.

Whether the Boumediene opinion has precedential virility, or whether it is merely judicial posturing, remains to be seen.  Justice Scalia feared that it is likely to be the former.  Early indications from the circuit courts suggest the latter.  Those courts have read Boumediene narrowly as applying only to Guantanamo, not, for example, to detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.  If that interpretation prevails before the Supreme Court, Boumediene is mere institutional chest-beating.  More troubling, in the long run, is the possibility that Justice Scalia’s concerns are well-founded, and that the Court’s use of habeas corpus in Boumediene is part of the expanding notion of “lawfare” that threatens to tie down the President’s commander-in-chief powers through a web of legal regulations and procedures, an American military Gulliver tied down by legal Lilliputians.

As Justice Frankfurter warned, the writ has “possibilities for evil as well as good.”

Note: Professor Knipprath will address Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution in his upcoming essay on: Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1, Scheduled for publication on April 11: 1:  No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility. 

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  Read more from Professor Knipprath at: .