Monday, March 22, 2010

Paul D. Halliday's "Habeas Corpus"

Paul D. Halliday is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Habeas Corpus: From England to Empire, and reported the following:
Margaret Symonds laughed in church. So local leaders jailed her. But in 1629, anyone who thought herself wrongly jailed might use a writ of habeas corpus to have her case reviewed. And so it was that England’s greatest court freed Margaret Symonds.

Margaret’s story, found on page 99, opens the chapter concerned with how judges made judgments using habeas corpus. She was just one of thousands who used the writ from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth to ask whether they had been confined contrary to law. Using the writ effectively required a powerful judge, one who could compel obedience from all who might detain others, whether a jailer, a military officer, or a violent husband, and whether in England, or ultimately, across the English king’s many imperial dominions. But at its core, the writ’s history contains a paradox: the making of empire would spread habeas corpus across the globe, and the making of empire would generate the anxieties that would constrain the writ and the judge who made it work. Legislation, including that produced by quasi-representative legislatures in Britain, her colonies and former colonies, and the U.S., would do as much as anything else to shut down the judge who made the writ great.

No book’s possibilities can be fully revealed in the words of one page, any more than the whole of any aspect of past human experience—for instance, the use of a revered legal device—can be found in one story. But by reading Margaret’s tale along with thousands of others, we can consider anew how our law has and has not helped us accomplish our collective moral aspirations. We can explore how law has worked, and how it has not, when political crises and social dislocations have generated anxieties that have prompted us to lock up those who scare us most—sometimes with good cause, sometimes without. At its best, habeas corpus has helped us to see the difference. Margaret Symonds learned that in 1629.
Read an excerpt from Habeas Corpus, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue