Water Man Spouts

Monday, January 14, 2008

On the Great Writ

It was twenty years ago this week that the US Supreme Court denied a New Jersey prosecutor’s appeal, thus affirming Judge Lee Sarokin’s 11-7-85 reversal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter’s conviction for a crime he did not commit. It was the end of what F. Lee Bailey called "one of this century’s most important legal sagas." I was looking through some of the old paperwork related to Rubin’s defense, and thought that some of the issues might be of interest here.

Judge Sarokin noted that Carter had been convicted by the prosecutor’s "appeal to racism rather than reason, concealment rather than disclosure." He cited "grave constitutional violations," and stated that "this court is convinced that a conviction which rests upon racial stereotypes, fears and prejudices violates rights too fundamental to permit deference to stand in the way of relief sought."

Rubin Carter’s case had been tied up in New Jersey for almost 20 years. It remains the criminal case with the longest record of litigation in US history. Because of this, his defense attorneys brought in Professor Leon Friedman, an expert at constitutional law at Hofstra University school of Law. Professor Friedman based the federal appeal on The Great Writ, or "habeas corpus."

Habeas corpus is one of the most important parts of our Constitutional democracy’s foundation. It is included in the US Constitution because it was recognized as essential for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary state actions.

After Judge Sarokin’s rulings in the case, on November 7 and 8, 1985, the prosecutors appealed his decisions three times in federal court before going to the US Supreme Court. In each instance, the courts upheld Judge Sarokin’s findings.

When people consider who they will vote for in the 2008 elections, they should keep in mind that the next president will be appointing people to the federal courts. It is important that we have judges who believe in the Constitutional protections that are afforded to individuals to protect them from appeals to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure."

In the decades since his release, Rubin has been an advocate for the wrongly-convicted, an opponent of the death penalty, and has worked with Nelson Mandela on the Reconciliation Movement, including trying to promote peace in the Middle East. He has spoken at the United Nations and to hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools across North America.
However, the door was closed on the type of habeas corpus appeal that Professor Friedman filed in 1985. And one of the most important things for us to keep in mind that this door was not closed by the Bush-Cheney administration. The first attempt to erode the Great Writ took place under the Clinton administration.

Shortly after the bombing in Oklahoma City, the Clinton administration began pushing for new legislation. The republican-authored bill became the law as the "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996." The most vocal opponent of this bill/law was NYS Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His opposition was based on the damage the bill/law did to the Great Writ. Senator Moynihan believed as strongly as anyone in the need to keep Americans safe; however, the bill that President Clinton signed created restrictions in the ability of citizens to appeal to courts for relief in cases that had nothing to do with "terrorism."

One of the issues that many democrats are concerned about is the Bush-Cheney attack on habeas corpus. It would be beneficial if at the next democratic debate, the candidates were asked for their position on restoring the Great Writ. And that should include asking about the damage that both the Clinton and Bush administration have done.


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