Habeas Corpus, Due Process and the Suspension Clause: A Study in the Foundations of American Constitutionalism

Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, constitutional scholars have been exploring the controversial issues surrounding the so-called “Emergency Constitution.” One of the very few provisions of the Constitution that explicitly contemplates such emergency situations is Article I, section 9, concerning the writ of habeas corpus. That provision prohibits suspension of the “Great Writ,” except “when in cases of [r]ebellion or [i]nvasion the public [s]afety may require it.”

The writ of habeas corpus has long stood as the primary weapon against the development of tyranny. It enables a court to demand that the executive produce individuals it is detaining and explain the lawful basis for that detention, and to order the detainees’ release if it finds the confinement to be unlawful. Absent the availability of habeas corpus, there would exist no legal means of preventing those in power from arresting any individual they want, for as long as they want, regardless of the legitimacy of the arrest. Yet pursuant to the so-called Suspension Clause, in times of rebellion or invasion the government is authorized to suspend the writ.

Highly respected scholars have recently engaged in an intense debate over the meaning and implications of the Suspension Clause. All of them, however, have seriously missed the mark, because all have assumed the continuing validity of that Clause. In this Article, we argue that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment effectively repeals the Suspension Clause. We reach this conclusion for two reasons: first, the Suspension Clause indisputably authorizes summary detention without the availability of any form of hearing before a neutral adjudicator. Whatever “due process” means at its outer fringes, there is no doubt that such a practice deprives an individual of liberty without due process of law. Yet the Due Process Clause, on its face, is unlimited in its application; it contemplates no exceptions, when an individual is to be deprived of life, liberty or property. Thus, purely as a matter of textual construction, the Due Process Clause, contained in an amendment, supersedes the Suspension Clause, which appears in the body of the Constitution. Moreover, it is important to recognize that the Suspension Clause authorizes tyrannical practices wholly inconsistent with and undermining of foundational precepts of American Constitutionalism. This concept dictates a governmental commitment to the rule of law and to limited governmental authority over its citizens. The Due Process Clause should be deemed to protect these core values. After establishing the supremacy of the Due Process Clause, the Article carefully explores the manner in which the Due Process Clause should be found to limit coercive governmental authority in times of national crisis.