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Hurtado v. California

"incapable Of Progress Or Improvement"

Matthews, however, was about to introduce a new concept into the American legal tradition. As so many Supreme Court justices had done before him, he acknowledged the importance of tradition--but then he cautioned that innovation was also important:

The Constitution of the United States was ordained, it is true, by descendants of Englishmen, who inherited the tradition of English law and history; but it was made for an undefined and expanding future, and for a people gathered and to be gathered from many Nations and of many tongues. And while we take just pride in [English] . . . common law, we are not to forget that in lands where other systems . . . prevail, . . . justice [is] . . . not unknown . . . [W]e should expect that the new and various experiences of our own situation and system will mold and shape it into new and not less useful forms . . .

Therefore, Matthews argued, if the only test that the Court had for due process was "settled usage"--what had always been done--the law would be "incapable of progress or improvement." And from that point followed his decision: California had the right to try out a new system of due process. If the state of California wanted to try people for murder without going through a grand-jury proceeding, why should it not have that right? Who was to say that due process could not take on a new definition from the one that English citizens had enjoyed for hundreds of years?

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"