From Corpus to Corpse | Ex-Context | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

From Corpus to Corpse

The habeas corpus rule is on its deathbed, thanks to Bush

Last week, when President Bush signed the Military Commission Act of 2006, he sounded the death knell of the Great Writ, habeas corpus.

The right of the imprisoned to challenge their detention in front of a judge isn't mentioned in the Constitution because habeas corpus has been recognized since the Magna Carta. But losing access to the courts moots our entire Bill of Rights.

If you're sitting in the can and nobody will talk to you but your jailer, how can you enforce your rights against unreasonable searches or seizures, or your rights to practice your religion or bear arms?

We can only hope that habeas corpus will have a temporary hiatus. Now, you could be dragged out of your house in the middle of the night and spirited to a dungeon in Egypt. There, they could hold your head under water until you say what they want to hear, or grow gills. Eventually, they could try you in front of a tribunal based on evidence that, for national-security reasons, you wouldn't even be allowed to see. And it would all be legal.

All they would have to do is say you are a terrorist. Without the right of habeas corpus, how could you ever prove you weren't?

George Bush says he took habeas corpus away so he could protect and defend us from the people who were responsible for 9/11. Funny, I thought that the oath he took on Inauguration Day was to defend the Constitution.

If you don't think you could be spirited away on flimsy charges, consider our country's other experiments with totalitarianism. Benjamin Franklin Bache -- Ben Franklin's nephew and editor of one of Philadelphia's largest newspapers, The American Aurora -- was charged under John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts for "libeling" Adams and died before he was able to defend himself. When Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, the military rounded up thousands of Southerners in wholesale lots for "engaging in disloyal practices." When Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Acts, Eugene Debs ended up campaigning for president as a Socialist from a federal pen in Atlanta. When Japanese-Americans lost their habeas corpus rights via Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, 120,000 of them ended up in internment camps for the duration of the war.

It is clear that laws have unintended consequences. Prosecutors don't make their bones by enforcing the laws on the books; you don't need a whiz kid to do that. They move up by finding creative ways to use the laws that are written to get at whomever they think needs gotten. Al Capone never did a day for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, but he caught 11 years for tax evasion (later reduced to six and change). The RICO (Racketeer-Influenced Corrupt Organization) Laws were written with the mob in mind, but that didn't stop them from being used against abortion protesters.

Given this, is it only coincidence that Joseph Billy Jr., the FBI's top counterterrorism official, is concerned about Al Qaeda ties to Italian, Russian and Asian organized crime groups in America? Or is this the harbinger of a new way to prosecute the accused?

Under the definition that seems to be developing, everybody who ever did time in prison or placed a bet with a bookie or smoked a joint could be accused of conspiring with terrorists. As it stands now, the accused won't be able to file a writ of habeas corpus to have their day in court. I don't know about you, but I'm getting nervous.

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