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Hurtado v. California

"ancient Established Law"

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Hurtado. Justice Matthews, writing for the majority, explained that the Fourteenth Amendment's notion of due process did not necessarily include the right to a grand jury proceeding. He went on at great length to explain why, offering an argument that was to shape the way that due process was interpreted for many decades to come. Justice Matthews began by taking on Hurtado's argument:

. . . that the phrase "due process of law" . . . has acquired a fixed, definite, and technical meaning; that it refers to and includes, not only the general principles of public liberty and private right, which lie at the foundation of all free government, but [also] the very institutions which . . . have been . . . the birthright and inheritance of every English subject . . . [and] that one of these institutions is that of the grand jury . . . in order that he may not be harassed or destroyed by prosecutions founded only upon private malice or popular fury . . .

In other words, Matthews said, Hurtado was arguing that the right to a grand jury proceeding was a very ancient right indeed, one that had belonged to every English subject centuries before the United States was ever founded. In fact, the Supreme Court had long thought of "ancient established law"--the rights traditionally granted to British citizens--as the very basis for American law.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Hurtado v. California - Significance, The Right To Be Indicted, "ancient Established Law", "incapable Of Progress Or Improvement"