In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson made the focal role of the writ of habeas corpus clear. Among those principles which “form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation,” habeas corpus played the lead role. It was not a musty lawyer’s tool. It was the constitutional pillar upon which all the other rights rest–for without it no person could be assured that the rights conferred by the Constitution would have any meaning. Habeas corpus is what separated the American constitutional tradition from that of so many other nations around the world. They had beautiful constitutions ensuring every sort of civil liberty. But without a tool to enforce those rights, they were meaningless.
The last Congress was rightly viewed by the American public as one of the most corrupt in our nation’s history. It was corrupt due both to the venality of so many of its members, and its betrayal of fundamental values. The greatest single act of betrayal was the decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus taken at the end of 2006 in the Military Commissions Act. It was, as the editors of the New York Times write, “one of the worst laws in the nation’s history.”
In 2006, Democrats achieved stunning success in the midterm elections campaigning on a promise to reverse the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s assault on the Constitution. But having achieved majorities in both houses, having assumed leadership, they have demonstrated shameful spinelessness on this issue–fretting endlessly over the “timing” and “framing” of a simple act of striking out the provisions that strip habeas corpus and restore the status quo ante. The Republicans (who without a doubt as the true villains of this story) constantly accuse the Democrats of a lack of resolve and fortitude. And on this count, the charge sticks. This issue is deadly serious and it merits being pushed with every tool in the majority’s disposal. In particular, it should be attached to defense appropriations and left there–as a pill that President Bush must swallow if he wants funding for his unpopular war in Iraq.
The proposal that is now being promoted–putting the issue up for a stand-alone vote–is a meaningless gesture and an insult to those who took the Democrats at their word. Habeas corpus is our heritage. It’s what Americans have fought and died to defend from our Revolution forward. And it’s high time that the Democrats whatever remain of the real Republicans stand up for it.