Hartford Courant : Lieberman's Vote Needed On Habeas Corpus Bill

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lieberman's Vote Needed On Habeas Corpus Bill

BRIAN WALT | July 18, 2007

Soon, the U.S. Senate will vote on a bill called the "Habeas Corpus Restoration Act" that has the support of a diverse group of judges, religious leaders, legal scholars, human rights and legal justice organizations.

Such widespread support is not surprising since habeas corpus - the right of a prisoner to challenge his or her detention before an independent court - is considered one of the most important pillars of the U.S. Constitution. Simply put, it prevents the government from holding a man behind bars without cause. Yet our elected leader in Washington, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, has not backed the bill.

The nation's founders considered habeas to be an indispensable safeguard against the abuse of executive power. Thomas Jefferson called it "one of the essential principles of our government," and Alexander Hamilton referred to habeas as one of the "greatest securities to liberty and republicanism."

We in the Jewish community have a special stake in restoring the right to habeas corpus. The rule of law is central in our tradition and has protected the rights of Jews along with all others in our democracy. Unlawful detention was a precursor to the deaths of millions of European Jews during World War II. We must thus be vigilant in demanding that we are not complicit in allowing the injustices that were done to us be repeated unto others.

But last year, this staple of our Constitution and international law was revoked. In October 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, allowing the United States government to revoke the right of habeas to anyone the president labels an "illegal enemy combatant."

This was an enormous expansion of presidential power with terrifying implications. It means that any of the 11.6 million of legal residents in this country - including green-card holders who have been in the United States for decades - could be declared an unlawful enemy combatant, thrown into military custody and denied the chance to contest their detention before an independent court. Neither the detainees nor their families would even have the right to know the evidence against them.

The administration insists that it has not - and will not - abuse its power. It claims that it must have the power to detain potential terrorists and that the courts should not interfere with the president's broad authority as commander in chief.

But habeas corpus is not interference. It is a mechanism for keeping the government honest. If the administration believes that someone poses a threat to American security and takes that person into custody, it has nothing to fear if that person exercises the right to habeas corpus. Habeas hearings will confirm the administration's allegations and silence many of its critics.

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, which represents hundreds of rabbis from all the movements of Judaism, is among a diverse collection of groups supporting the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act, which would restore to prisoners what the Military Commissions Act took away. We join both Democratic and Republican leaders from the House and the Senate, Christian leaders and organizations, and human rights and legal justice groups in calling for a return to the constitutional and historic right to habeas corpus.

The Jewish people value the rule of law as essential to our own and everyone else's freedom. I urge Sen. Lieberman to vote yes on the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act and restore the historic right, the most important of all checks on judicial abuse of freedom, to prevent potentially innocent men and women from being held without the opportunity of appeal. The right of all prisoners to due process and a fair trial is fundamental to any society that values freedom.

Rabbi Brian Walt is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights - North America in West Tisbury, Mass., which is supported by more than 50 rabbis in Connecticut.