In Reason, Jonathan Hafetz reviews a new book by Anthony Gregory called The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror:
This tension between the ideal and the reality of habeas corpus is central to Anthony Gregory’s excellent new book, The Power of Habeas Corpus in America. Gregory, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, provides a valuable contribution to the literature on habeas corpus, one with broader implications for civil liberties, state power, and justice in a liberal democracy. The book does not attempt to capture all of the complex doctrinal shifts in habeas over the centuries. Instead, it synthesizes these developments to underscore a paradox: the way habeas serves as “both as an engine and a curb on state power.” In the process, Gregory charts how power dynamics have historically shaped struggles over habeas and its role in American society.
Gregory situates this paradox early in habeas‘ history. During the 15th and 16th centuries, habeas served mainly as a mechanism for England’s central courts to assert control over ecclesiastical courts and other rival tribunals. By demanding that reason be given why any of the king’s subjects was imprisoned, habeas helped increase the crown’s authority and legitimacy.
By the late 17th century, on the other hand, habeas had become a means of challenging royal authority itself, eventually taking on its modern incarnation as the Great Writ of Liberty. Yet even here, the story is more complex. Building on the pioneering work of historian Paul Halliday, Gregory points out that, contrary to popular interpretations, habeas‘ potential as a judicial constraint on state power was threatened by legislation. Gregory notes, for instance, how the famous Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, labeled by William Blackstone as a “second Magna Carta and stable bulwark of our liberties,” ultimately diluted the writ’s potency and flexibility by tying it down to statute. Increasingly, habeas‘ efficacy would be seen to depend on legislative action — an understanding perhaps best illustrated by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s statement that a federal court’s power to award the writ “must be given by written law.”
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The contradictions within habeas were manifested during antebellum America, where the writ was used both to bolster slavery and to undermine it. Slave owners employed habeas to apprehend runaways — for example, by petitioning state courts in the North to assist in apprehending their “property.” Other state courts in the North, by contrast, sometimes used habeas to free slaves or block their return to the South. Ultimately, the ability of state courts to wield habeas in defense of individual liberty was limited by Supreme Court rulings barring state interference with the enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws and, eventually, with federal detentions generally — an example of what Gregory describes as the dangers of centralization.
A significant counter to Gregory’s thesis is the role federal habeas corpus played during the 20th century in helping enforce civil rights in the South and in advancing the criminal procedure revolution undertaken by the Supreme Court to protect the rights of defendants. Gregory’s account here runs against the traditional narrative in which habeas‘ centralization was critical to its continuing role in protecting liberty. In response, Gregory cites the declining utility of federal habeas corpus following several decades of Supreme Court decisions and congressional restrictions that have made it more difficult for prisoners not merely to obtain relief but even to have their claims heard by a judge. Federal habeas, Gregory writes, has become a “shell of what it promised to be.”