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Restore habeas, restore security

Even in risky times, championing the rule of law is the best way to protect American society and its founding values.

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Americans understand that the government can't just lock away their friends or neighbors without explanation or giving them a day in court. But should that still be true when we're talking about accused terrorists?

For five years, the executive branch and Congress have said that foreign enemy combatants should not have access to federal courts and have allowed them to languish in a Guantánamo prison without outside judicial review. Last month, US senators narrowly failed to reverse this misguided strategy, but we all have a stake in the consequences of this debate.

At stake is habeas corpus, a doctrine as old as Magna Carta. Its core principle, that no person can be locked away without a fair and impartial court review, is the cornerstone of all free societies, including America's.

Habeas corpus protects all of us by ensuring that government is detaining the right people and not accidentally (or intentionally) jailing the innocent. It allows a fair hearing and nothing more. If a judge finds that imprisonment is lawful, an inmate remains in confinement.

Since 9/11, courts have affirmed that under federal law they may review legal claims of individual detainees. But before those rulings led to habeas hearings, Congress twice voted to change the rules. After the Supreme Court ruled that enemy combatants could file habeas claims in federal courts, Congress last year passed the Military Commissions Act, which prohibits courts from hearing such cases.

Why should Americans protect the rights of people possibly bent on their destruction? There are many reasons, but the main one is this: Championing the rule of law is the best way to protect American society, and its founding values.


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