Just after noon at the Tate Center Plaza the Campus Greens began a funeral march for the writ of habeas corpus. It proceeded to the Arch with students carrying a fake coffin labeled "R.I.P. OUR FRIEND HABEAS CORPUS" and a banner that said "REPEAL THE MILITARY COMMISSIONS ACT." They sang and chanted phrases like "Where have our rights gone?"
Computer science professor Dan Everett participated in the march wearing a black robe. Law professor Donald Wilkes joined, too, but wearing his trademark red Bulldogs tie and fedora. The campus was busy as this must have been a time for class changes. On the way up Sanford Drive, a man in a ROTC uniform said about someone, "That guy doesn't deserve freedom." I wondered aloud, "Does he even know what habeas corpus is?" A woman in the march agreed with my sentiment and said that many people will probably have to look up the term.
For those that forgot their Latin legal terms, the device of the writ of habeas corpus gives prisoners the right to be brought before a judge and have the government justify his or her imprisonment. The U.S. Constitution says that "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." U.S. Const. art. I, Â§ 9, cl. 2. The Military Commissions Act is a brand new law that is supposed to "authorize trial by military commission for violations of the law of war." Military Commissions Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-366, 120 Stat. 2600. This act was brought about because the Bush administration opposes the necessity of bringing a military combatant held in a place like Guantanamo Bay before a judge. The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that military commissions could potentially satisfy this right to be brought before a judge, but at that point the procedures in place were inadequate under the Constitution. See Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 126 S. Ct. 2749, 165 L. Ed. 2d 723, 74 U.S.L.W. 4579 (2006). So what is the controversy? Some believe that habeas corpus can only be satisfied through an Article III court, and others believe that the Military Commissions Act goes too far and allows the violation of international law. Most importantly, it has been explained to me that the Act actually makes habeas corpus unavailable to non-citizen combatants -- even while that status has not been finalized.
The group stayed at the Arch for a couple of minutes and then marched south to the President's Club Garden at Old College. Professor Wilkes delivered a "funeral oration" for habeas corpus, or rather a lecture about the history and importance of habeas corpus. He said that the right is a "palladium" and a "bulwark" of civil liberties. He said that he has researched this doctrine extensively, going as far as to study the original parchment bearing the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. He went on to say that no other president has done as much to erode civil liberties as George W. Bush, and -- Wilkes is a controversial figure, mind you -- he said that Bush's gravestone will bear the epitaph "Here lies a war criminal." But he expressed optimism that the 110th Congress will curtail some of the changes that Bush has championed.
Elizabeth Bishop sang a song about preserving civil liberties to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Professor Wilkes explains habeas corpus in the Flagpole.(Please keep your comments on this article civil and academic, and there is no need to analyze federal policy in excruciating detail.)