September 29, 2004

Undergrad Legal Society Founded

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Societas, a new undergraduate law society in the College of Arts & Sciences, held its first general body meeting yesterday afternoon at the Cornell Law School. The highlight of the meeting was a lecture by Prof. Trevor Morrison, law, entitled “Balancing Liberty and Security: Federal Courts and the Detention of Enemy Combatants.”

Ash Walter ’05, club founder and president, said he created the organization because “there was a recognition of a need…Arts and Science has the greatest number of students interested in law, but we didn’t have any law societies.” Pre-Law Undergraduate Society, the only other club on campus comparable to Societas, is geared towards Human Ecology students.

The club’s main objective is to provide students with an overview of broad areas of law. “Societas will put people in close contact with the meat of law,” Walter said. Through such exposure, he hopes that “when it is time for students to apply to law school, they can make an educated decision about whether or not they want to go into law.”

In the first of three lectures Societas has planned for the semester, Morrison addressed the executive branch’s decision to detain suspected members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or other terrorist groups for an indefinite period of time without finding any criminal charges to press against them.

Morrison began by discussing the connection between security and freedom. “The first duty of any government is to protect the people living in its territory,” he said. However, he added that security and order are not the end goals of government but rather “the means to the other ends democratic countries had formed to pursue…Security must not be allowed to nullify the end goal, liberty.” Morrison then brought up the two questions at the heart of the argument. He first asked “does the government have the authority to detain a person without criminal charges?” He then asked “does the accused have the right to challenge the process to detain?”

“The constitutional system contains a fundamental principle — the separation of powers,” Morrison said. However, he stressed that the separation of powers did not imply that the government branches had nothing to do with each other; instead, they acted as a system of checks and balances to curb the accumulation of power in any one branch.

To illustrate his point, Morrison discussed three recent cases of people who have been detained without any criminal charges against them. The first, Yaser Hamdi, was arrested on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The second, Jose Padilla, was a U.S. citizen apprehended at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on a flight from Pakistan. The third case involved several hundred detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

In court rulings about the president’s power to detain enemy combatants, “eight out of nine justices said that the president did not have the inherent, unilateral power to detain,” Morrison said. He added, however, “they did not hold that the president lacks authority. Rather, he must be given the authority to hold enemy combatants by Congress.”

The court rulings on these cases indicated two things. “The president can’t exercise authority in a first instance unless Congress grants him the power to do so…the Court can’t be read out of the equation either — there must be some way to assure that executive decisions are reviewed for accuracy and non-arbitrariness,” Morrison said.

Morrison concluded his lecture by inviting the audience to “join the community of lawyers” who will “answer these type of open questions in the coming years.” With regards to Morrison’s three examples, Prof. Douglas Kysar, law, the advisor of Societas, said, “this was a concise yet deep explanation…he did a remarkable thing in summarizing three of the most important cases in thirty minutes.”

Societas’s next lecture on November 10 will cover environmental law. Possible ideas for future events include panel discussions, debates, and meetings with prominent people on campus.

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer