Lincoln Caplan wrote about the Supreme Court for TheNew York Times editorial page during the past three Court terms and is the author of five books about legal affairs. He is a visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School.
The writ of habeas corpus, until not long ago, was a mysterious yet potent safeguard of liberty in American law. It worked like an incantation to break an evil spell. A prisoner petitions a court for a writ. “Habeas corpus” means “May you produce the body,” spoken from the point of view of a judge. He orders whoever is depriving the prisoner of his freedom to bring him to court—a warden confining a prisoner, the secretary of defense holding a detainee, or a magistrate who has denied bail to someone jailed but not convicted—and to justify the detention. The judge then decides whether the petitioner is being detained in breach of the Constitution or some other law.