Halliday ’83 Offers a Sweeping History of Habeas Corpus

Paul Halliday '83. (Photo by Tony von Thelen)

Paul Halliday '83. (Photo by Tony von Thelen)

Habeas corpus has been known as the Great Writ of Liberty but history shows us that it is actually a writ of power. In Habeas Corpus: From England to Empire (Harvard University Press), Paul D. Halliday ’83, a history professor at the University of Virginia, provides a sweeping revisionist account of the world’s most revered legal device and changes the traditional way people understand the writ and democracy.

The author examined thousands of cases across more than five hundred years to write this history of the writ from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

Beginning in the 1600s, English judges used ideas about royal power to empower themselves to protect the king’s subjects. The key was not the prisoner’s right to liberty but the possible wrongs committed by a jailer or anyone who ordered a prisoner detained. This focus on wrongs gave the writ the force necessary to protect ideas about rights as they developed outside of law. This judicial power carried the writ across the world, from Quebec to Bengal.

Halliday’s research has been cited extensively in two Guantanamo detainee cases and a death penalty review case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Low

David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: dlow@wesleyan.edu