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Senate bill targets habeas corpus

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Excellent news out of the Senate today.

A bill that would allow terrorism suspects access to federal courts to challenge their imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The committee, on an 11-8 vote, advanced a bill that would allow prisoners to protest their detentions through a writ of habeas corpus, considered by many to be the cornerstone of the U.S. judicial system.

Nice as this is, it’s sad that in 2007 I find myself writing about a decision to restore a fundamental principle of American jurisprudence.

Ten years ago, if you had asked me whether the United States government would ever imprison people — citizen or not — indefinitely without charge and with no right to challenge their detention, I would have laughed out loud. That went against so many laws, Constitutional principles, simple fairness and basic American values that it would have seemed inconceivable.

Today I marvel at the naive hubris of my younger self — and the unprincipled cowardice that led our elected representatives to so readily abandon such a basic precept of justice.

I look forward to the debate on this. Democrats will try to attach it to the defense spending bill, which if they succeed should make the measure veto proof: Bush is unlikely to veto the defense authorization simply to derail the habeas corpus provision. The biggest question is whether Senate Republicans have the desire and the unity to tie it up.

Let me point out two passages from the link, one illustrative and one simply amusing.

Administration officials and most Republicans say they do not think dangerous terror suspects should have access to U.S. federal courts or other rights guaranteed to Americans under the Constitution.

The fatal flaw in this reasoning is, of course, that the defendants in question are suspects, not proven bad guys. The whole point of habeas corpus is to make sure we separate the guilty from the wrongly held. Bush and “most Republicans” apparently feel they can skip that step. We can’t. Any argument predicated on “they’re terrorists!” fails, because that case has not been proven.

Second, there was this:

“The great history of our nation is built on having judicial review, on having openness, and we should not out of fear or indifference or whatever turn our back on that great history,” the committee’s Democratic chairman, Patrick Leahy, said.

“Or whatever”? Way to kill what started out as a pretty good flight of soaring rhetoric, Patrick. Something tells me that 50 years from now, law students won’t be quoting that particular utterance.

The bill is expected to hit the Senate floor later this month.