1996: Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act

Joe Biden was a key player in writing the precursor to the Patriot Act over the objections of civil liberties advocates.

Washington, DC. 4-24-1996 President William Jefferson Clinton signing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 during a formal ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
President Bill Clinton signs the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act at the White House on April 24, 1996. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

This 1996 precursor to the Patriot Act was one of Joe Biden’s most consequential pieces of legislation on issues of civil liberties, domestic surveillance, and “counterterrorism” authorities. Biden has repeatedly boasted of his role in the legislation and how it set the stage for the Patriot Act. The American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups repeatedly denounced the legislation for its gutting of habeas corpus; stripping of the rights of death row prisoners; harsh federal sentencing rules; impact on civil liberties; and grave implications for immigrant rights. The act “is surely one of the worst statutes ever passed by Congress and signed into law by a President,” wrote Yale Law School scholar Lincoln Caplan. “This law gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” The ACLU said it “granted the government new powers while at the same time insulating certain enforcement actions — notably death sentences — from meaningful oversight by federal judges.” The ACLU called for the repeal of its habeas corpus provisions, saying they did not provide sufficient rights for prisoners to challenge what they asserted were violations of constitutional rights. The ACLU also said the act set the stage for “major violations of immigrants’ rights” by stripping federal courts of the ability to review individual deportation orders. Biden’s current White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, then a Justice Department lawyer, was a major force in drafting and passing the legislation into law. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and enjoyed widespread bipartisan support.

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