The Court-Martial of Mother Jones (Edward M. Steel)

“At a time when some elected officials are calling for alleged terrorists to be tried by military tribunals, instead of constitutionally mandated civilian court, it is important to remember the sordid history of military tribunals that were employed in the United States following declarations of martial law.

The constitution does not explicitly mention military tribunals or martial law, but it does provide for the suspension of the writ to habeas corpus, which often accompanies the declaration of martial law. The constitution allows the suspension of habeas corpus only “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” The “Great Writ” as habeas corpus has been called, is a fundamental protection against the abuses of martial law.

The concept of martial law has been characterized as an oxymoron, because “martial”, which means military control, is incompatible with the rule of law, especially if it’s applied in an arbitrary manner. Sir Frederic Maitland, the great British juridical historian, has aptly described martial law as “improvised justice executed by soldiers.” (p. 74) All too often the word executed has had a double meaning since the consequence of a court martial is often execution by firing squad.

Were martial law to be limited to actual rebellions or invasions that genuinely endanger public safety, it might be seen as a necessary evil. But in the early 20th Century, it was invoked against workers who sought to organize against big business. Labor leaders were imprisoned and tried by court marital without the protection of the Bill of Rights. Although none were sentenced to death, several were imprisoned.

One such case was the court martial of Mother Jones, which is the subject of this informative work. Jones was an octogenarian labor organizer who traveled to West Virginia (as well as to other areas of the country) to organize mine workers who were being abused by the mine owners. There was violence on both sides and the authorities argued that the civilian system of justice was inadequate to deal with the threat to public safety. So the governor declared martial law and had Jones and several of her fellow organizers tried before a court martial. They faced serious charges of conspiracy and murder.

Mother Jones herself was accused of inciting violence that led to several deaths and injuries by her inflammatory speeches and radical programs. She refused to recognize the authority of the court martial and stood mute, but the trial went forward. The transcript of that proceeding is in this volume and readers can decide for themselves whether the trial, verdict and sentence were fair…” –Excerpts taken from our special introduction by Alan Dershowitz.


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