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Habeas Corpus - Constitutional Protection Of The Writ Of Habeas Corpus

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One central question surrounding the suspension clause concerns the nature and scope of its protection. As an initial matter, the clause does not declare that the writ of habeas corpus must be made available (as was proposed but not adopted during the constitutional convention), but rather suggests that once established it cannot be withdrawn (barring rebellion or invasion). In Ex Parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 75 (1807), Chief Justice Marshall nonetheless suggested that Congress's creation of habeas jurisdiction in the Judiciary Act of 1789 was likely the result of its perceived "obligation" to give "life" to the constitutional provision. Under Chief Justice Marshall's reasoning, the clause protects federal judicial power to grant writs of habeas corpus, though many scholars have argued that the clause was intended to protect state judicial power from federal intervention. When a state court sought to secure the release of an abolitionist who had been convicted in a federal proceeding of aiding and abetting a fugitive slave, the Court decisively rejected the notion that state habeas enjoys any federal constitutional protection, insisting instead that state courts lack power to interfere with persons imprisoned under the authority of the federal government (Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1858)). That Congress appears to have initially extended the writ to federal prisoners alone suggests that the suspension clause, at least as an initial matter, was not understood to afford protections to persons held in state custody; recent scholarship, though, challenges the notion that the Judiciary Act of 1789 should be understood to have deprived federal courts of habeas power with respect to state prisoners.

During the early nineteenth century, Congress gradually extended the scope of federal habeas jurisdiction to certain classes of state prisoners in response to specific threats to federal power. When South Carolinians declared federal tariffs unconstitutional at the climax of the nullification controversy, President Andrew Jackson feared that federal officers seeking to enforce the tariffs would be subject to state interference. On President Jackson's initiative, Congress authorized federal judges to exercise habeas jurisdiction in cases involving federal or state prisoners confined for acts committed in pursuance of federal law. Less than a decade later, following a diplomatic crisis that ensued when New York tried a British citizen who had attempted to prevent American assistance to Canadian rebels during the winter revolt of 1837–1838, Congress again expanded federal habeas jurisdiction to permit federal review of cases involving federal or state prisoners who are subjects or citizens of a foreign state.

The most significant statutory expansion of the writ occurred in the wake of the Civil War. The Judiciary Act of 1867 extended the writ to all persons, federal or state, restrained of liberty in violation of federal law. Today, the term "federal habeas" is invariably used to describe challenges by state prisoners, as federal habeas jurisdiction for federal prisoners has essentially been replaced by a separate comprehensive federal postconviction scheme whose substantive scope is basically congruent with the habeas remedy that it displaced (28 U.S.C. § 2255).

An additional question surrounding the suspension clause concerns which branch of government can withhold the writ in response to rebellion or invasion. This question took on great significance at the beginning of the Civil War. Just over two weeks after shots were fired on Fort Sumpter, President Abraham Lincoln issued an order to Commanding General Winfield Scott permitting him to suspend the writ. When John Merryman was subsequently arrested for his participation in the destruction of bridges in Baltimore, military officials refused to respond to a writ before Chief Justice Taney. The Chief Justice wrote a scathing opinion denying the legality of President Lincoln's purported suspension (Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (C.C.D. Md. 1861) (No. 9487)), arguing that it is Congress and not the president in whom the Constitution vests such power. President Lincoln publicly disagreed with the opinion (and did not honor it), and Congress subsequently declared its retroactive approval of President Lincoln's military actions. In 1863, Congress also specifically authorized President Lincoln to suspend the writ whenever in the course of the "present rebellion" he judged it to be necessary.

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