Due process, manifest crimes, and electronic order

Due process as a peculiarly English concept dates to the statute 28 Edw. III c.3, though the jurists of the ius commune debated consistently the concept. It was held, generally, that justice required a defendant be accused, summoned before a tribunal, and given an opportunity to present a defense. However, beginning with Gratian and continuing for a couple of hundred years, jurists struggled with exceptions to the requirement of summons and trial. Two exceptions that were consistently recognized were for infamous crimes and crimes committed in the judge’s presence. While historically there have been geographic limitations on what is infamous and indeed what happens in the judge’s presence, these limitations have dissolved in a significant way as a result of telecommunications technology. This presents anew the problem of these exceptions to due process.

In general, a judge, as the personification of justice, requires two parties: an accuser and the accused (ST II-II q.67 a.3 co.). Justice, after all, is something between two men (ST II-II q.58 a.2 co.). In the medieval period, there was, however, a constant debate over notorious crimes. St. Thomas appears to permit punishment in the case of some notorious crimes (ST II-II q.67 a.3 ad 2). First, publica infamia habet locum accusatoris—public infamy takes the accuser’s place (ibid.). Second, when the Church denounces an excommunicate, since his rebellion against the Church is manifest. Third, according to the order of judicial procedure when the judge is an eyewitness. On this last point, Cardinal Cajetan cites cases of murder or blasphemy before the judge. In such cases, Cajetan notes, the judge may proceed to inflict punishment without further infamy, denunciation, or accusation.

The question of when a judge may dispense with a trial was a live issue throughout the medieval period. Gratian himself, in Causa II, explored the problem of when a judge may pass sentence without a trial, acknowledging by patristic authority—St. Ambrose—that a manifest crime does not require an accusation (C.2 q.1 c.15; d.a.c. 21). Aquinas’s position in the Summa, therefore, reflects the consensus of the canonists following Gratian. Generally, a judge must wait for an accusation and have a trial, but in cases of infamous crimes, he need not follow such procedural norms. The infamous crime itself is the accusation.

The canonist Kenneth Pennington, in his The Prince and the Law, notes that the problem of dispensing with due process remained vexing for canonists. The hugely influential commentator Panormitanus, writing more than 100 years after St. Thomas, wrestled with the problem of notorious crimes, developing his thought on them considerably. Commenting upon Susceptis and Que in ecclesiarum, Panormitanus held that pope and prince alike could dispense with procedural requirements. Pennington notes that Panormitanus apparently took another look on the important procedural decretal Pastoralis and held that a summons and an opportunity for defense were required for secular rulers to inflict punishments.

But, Pennington observes, glossing Ea quae and Cum olim, Panormitanus held that the prince could act beyond procedure—if he acted from the fullness of his power and with certain knowledge—though not beyond the natural law. Ultimately, Panormitanus’s struggles with manifest crimes are understandable: one naturally asks what the procedural requirements are when the accused’s crime is known, either generally or with certainty by the judge. Pennington notes that, in the classical legal tradition, due process was being developed into a check on the unrestrained will of the prince. Panormitanus’s examinations were, Pennington observes, complicated by the tradition that the prince’s acts are presumed to be correct.

Here one may cast a jaundiced eye at the developments following St. Thomas and Gratian. What appears in the thirteenth century as altogether settled becomes unsettled thereafter at the same time as the jurists were attempting to find grounds to restrain the will of the prince. Nevertheless, even in these attempts, the problem of the manifest crime remained vexing, at least to Panormitanus, as Pennington demonstrates. One may well wish to restrain the prince’s will, though that is a different case than public infamy.

At minimum, we may say that the supreme judge of the commonwealth, who has care for the common good, and who can dispense from the law as necessary, can proceed to punish infamous crimes or crimes that happen in his presence. Even those judges who are subordinate and cannot dispense from the laws of the commonwealth as easily may proceed in an inquisitorial or summary manner in such cases. This is not inconsistent with the demands of due process, rightly conceived, because the ius commune acknowledged this exception to the concept of due process from the beginning. The commonwealth always has an interest in seeing wrongdoers punished (ST II-II q.67 a.4 co.). Indeed, punishing wrongdoers is a necessary part of justice, inextricably bound up with the common good (cf. ibid.).

One has to consider the problem of manifest crimes in an era of spatial orders that include the magnetic waves encircling the earth. There is only geographically distance between, for example, Portland and Washington, D.C.: the instantaneous communication between those two cities, at two extremes of the Republic, renders that geographical distance much less significant. Indeed, in a moral sense, we may say that there is no distance between them. In the medieval context, where even relatively small distances proved daunting in terms of travel and communication, the limits of public infamy and crimes committed in the presence of the judge were fairly restrictive. Even a few miles may serve to mitigate notoriety or to ensure that the judge could not see a crime.

Today, however, telecommunications technology ensures that notoriety in one part of the world—not merely within the state—is notoriety in all parts of the world. More than that, notoriety online becomes notoriety in real life: cancel culture inflicts concrete punishments, extrajudicially, on citizens for offenses against morals and order (after a fashion). Likewise, the judge himself can see with his own eyes all manner of crimes, documented in high definition and streamed on Twitter, YouTube, or the nightly news. In this regard, the order of the state includes wholly virtual spaces, with serious consequences for notoriety and crimes committed in the presence of the judge. The exceptions to due process in the classical legal tradition, exceptions explored by St. Thomas and medieval jurists like Panormitanus, swallow up more and more.

When the great distances of the United States presented similar problems to medieval Europe, the question of exceptions to due process did not present itself in a very serious way. Judicial districts were geographically large and notoriety in one part of a county (or a state or a territory) might not equate to notoriety in another part. However, the old problems present themselves anew in an age of telecommunications—when notoriety is universal and instantaneous, when everyone can see everything. This necessarily implicates the leadership of the state: the commonwealth always has an interest in seeing wrongdoers punished (ST II-II q.67 a.4 co.).