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  ha·be·as corpus (hb-s)
  1. One of a variety of writs that may be issued to bring a party before a court or judge, having as its function the release of the party from unlawful restraint.
  2. The right of a citizen to obtain such a writ.
[Middle English, from Medieval Latin habes corpus, produce the body (from the opening words of the writ)  : Latin habes, second person sing. present subjunctive of  habre, to have + Latin corpus, body.]


By Joseph Dale Robertson

Habeas Corpus is an ancient common law prerogative writ - a legal procedure to which you have an undeniable right. It is an extraordinary remedy at law. Upon proper application, or even on naked knowledge alone, a court is empowered, and is duty bound, to issue the Extraordinary Writ of Habeas Corpus commanding one who is restraining liberty to forthwith produce before the court the person who is in custody and to show cause why the liberty of that person is being restrained. Absent a sufficient showing for a proper restraint of liberty, the court is duty bound to order the restraint eliminated and the person discharged. Habeas Corpus is fundamental to American and all other English common law derivative systems of jurisprudence. It is the ultimate lawful and peaceable remedy for adjudicating the providence of liberty’s restraint. Since the history of Habeas Corpus is predominately English we must visit that history to gain understanding of American use of Habeas Corpus.

ENGLISH HISTORY OF HABEAS CORPUS: The history of Habeas Corpus is ancient. It appears to be predominately of Anglo-Saxon common law origin. Clearly, it precedes Magna Carta in 1215. Although the precise origin of Habeas Corpus is uncertain in light of it’s antiquity, its principle effect was achieved in the middle ages by various writs, the sum collection of which gave a similar effect as the modern writ. Although practice surrounding the writ has evolved over time, Habeas Corpus has since the earliest times been employed to compel the appearance of a person who is in custody to be brought before a court. And while Habeas Corpus originally was the prerogative writ of the King and his courts, the passage of hundreds of years time has permitted it to evolve into a prerogative writ initiated by the person restrained, or someone acting in his interest rather than by the King or his courts. Magna Carta obliquely makes reference to Habeas Corpus through express reference to “the law of the land”. From Magna Carta the exact quote is: “ free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed except by the lawful judgment of their peers or by the law of the land.” The practice and right of Habeas Corpus was settled practice and law at the time of Magna Carta and was thus a fundamental part of the unwritten common “law of the land” as was expressly recognized by Magna Carta.

CIVIL LAW VS. COMMON LAW: However, Habeas Corpus was generally unknown to the various civil law systems of Europe which are generally devolved from Roman and/or Justinian law. European civil law systems tend to favor collective authority from the top down while the Anglo-Saxon common law tends to favor the individual. Thus, it is altogether understandable that the ultimate right to determine the propriety of restraint upon the liberty of an individual is an almost unique feature derived from the ancient Anglo-Saxon common law of England. Indeed, the Magna Carta itself is arguably a reaction to the incursion of European civil law into the English common law legal system via William in 1066. The running tension and contest between the civil law of the “Norman intruders” intrusively confronting the ancient Anglo-Saxon common law continued throughout the period 1066 to the 1640’s when, following the English Civil War, and the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, the people’s parliament clearly established the respective position of King and citizen. In this crucible of contest, the confrontation of top down authoritarian civil law principles clashed and continuously competed with, but then yielded to, the ancient “good old” common law of the land. In the final analysis, the strength and resilience, and I might add common sense, of the evolved, time tested, common law prevailed. The interest of the people as reflected in their common law won a several centuries old contest with the civil law brought to England by the Norman conquest. Habeas Corpus is merely one feature, albeit it an important one, of the common law. As a feature of common law, the right of Habeas Corpus reflects the age old contest between the individual and the state. Habeas Corpus empowers the individual in holding accountable the exercise of the state’s awesome power to restrain liberty.

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