Why is habeas corpus important?

How Habeas Corpus Works

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies at a Senate Judiciary hearing concerning, in part, the government's view of habeas corpus.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies at a Senate Judiciary hearing concerning, in part, the government's view of habeas corpus.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Habeas corpus isn't an original American concept. It became law in the West when England's Parliament enacted the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 [source: Constitution.org]. The act came at a time when the English were subject to unlawful imprisonment at the hands of the king and his deputies. Prior to 1679, habeas corpus was around in spirit, if not in name. Legal scholars generally point to its existence as far back as the Magna Carta, an English document ratified in a meadow in Runnymede, England, in 1215. This 63-chapter document now serves as the foundation for most of Western and democratic law [source: Linebaugh]. The idea of habeas corpus may be Anglo-Saxon in its earliest incarnations, but it was adopted by U.S. policy makers around 1789.

Habeas corpus is part of a twofold process. In a petition for habeas corpus, a prisoner (or another interested party) raises doubts about the legality of his or her imprisonment. If the petition is successful in demonstrating that the imprisonment justifies an examination, a judge will issue a writ of habeas corpus. This is the order for the prisoner to be brought to court.

In a decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 1992, the justices substantiated the importance of habeas corpus, calling it "the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action" [source: The Nation]. Without it, a person could be imprisoned unlawfully without any recourse for securing his or her release.

The writ of habeas corpus isn't meant to determine whether the detainee is guilty of the crime of which he or she is accused -- it's a call for an examination of the legality of his or her imprisonment [source: BBC]. Was the due process of law followed? Did the judge in the case railroad the defendant? Was the jury tampered with? Did the prosecution hide evidence that exonerates the prisoner?

Issues like these may be raised in a habeas corpus petition. There must be proof or evidence supporting these claims to warrant further investigation. That's because habeas corpus is a part of due process by the law. Due process is a group of constitutionally guaranteed rights that includes:

  • a fair and speedy trial
  • counsel
  • freedom from unlawful search and seizure
  • trial by a jury of peers
  • an appearance before one's accusers

But even a constitutional guarantee carries little weight if there's no mechanism in place to grant recourse to the person on the receiving end of that guarantee. Habeas corpus ensures that the right to due process is supported by action. It's the quintessential example of hoping for the best while planning for the worst.

Habeas corpus can be used as a last-ditch strategic tool in a criminal case, but only after the appeals process has been exhausted. A court reviewing a habeas plea can consider new evidence, whereas in an appeal, no new evidence can be submitted. Once an issue raised in a habeas plea has been decided, however, it cannot be debated again in regard to the same case [source: Reaves].

The U.S. Constitution provides for suspension of habeas corpus in only extreme and express cases. Exactly when and what these cases are is subject to interpretation.

Read about some cases when habeas corpus was suspended in America -- and the outcry that ensued -- on the next page.