Saturday, March 14, 2009

Our Constitutional Right to Procedural Due Process

We Americans tend to take for granted the precious rights guaranteed by our institutions. This passage from Macaulay's History of England from the Accession of James the Second throws into high relief the safeguards afforded us by the rule of law we inherited from England (and subsequently improved):

During the eight years which preceded the Revolution [of 1688], the Whigs had complained bitterly, and not more bitterly than justly, of the hard measure dealt out to persons accused of political offences. Was it not monstrous, they asked, that a culprit should be denied a sight of his indictment? Often an unhappy prisoner had not known of what he was accused till he had held up his hand at the bar. The crime imputed to him might be plotting to shoot the King; it might be plotting to poison the King. The more innocent the defendant was, the less likely he was to guess the nature of the charge on which he was to be tried; and how could he have evidence ready to rebut a charge the nature of which he could not guess? The Crown had power to compel the attendance of witnesses. The prisoner had no such power. If witnesses voluntarily came forward to speak in his favour, they could not be sworn. Their testimony therefore made less impression on a jury than the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution, whose veracity was guaranteed by the most solemn sanctions of law and of religion. The juries, carefully selected by Sheriffs whom the Crown had named, were men animated by the fiercest party spirit, men who had as little tenderness for an Exclusionist or a Dissenter as for a mad dog. The government was served by a band of able, experienced and unprincipled lawyers, who could, by merely glancing over a brief, distinguish every weak and every strong point of a case, whose presence of mind never failed them, whose flow of speech was inexhaustible, and who had passed their lives in dressing up the worse reason so as to make it appear the better. Was it not horrible to see three or four of these shrewd, learned and callous orators arrayed against one poor wretch who had never in his life uttered a word in public, who was ignorant of the legal definition of treason and of the first principles of the law of evidence, and whose intellect, unequal at best to a fencing match with professional gladiators, was confused by the near prospect of a cruel and ignominious death? Such however was the rule; and even for a man so much stupefied by sickness that he could not hold up his hand or make his voice heard, even for a poor old woman who understood nothing of what was passing except that she was going to be roasted alive for doing an act of charity, no advocate was suffered to utter a word. That a state trial so conducted was little better than a judicial murder had been, during the proscription of the Whig party, a fundamental article of the Whig creed.

from Chapter XVIII

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