Tag Archives: sanctuary

The Semantics of “Sanctuary”: Why Sanctuary Cities are no safe haven

Ben Darlow and Charlie Eastaugh*

Westminster AbbeyTalk of “sanctuary cities” has become flavour of the day in recent months, with a growing interest in their legality and—to the contrary—the unconstitutionality of federal attempts to attack such havens (as demonstrated by a January 2017 Executive Order, analysed by Garett Epps here). Volokh Conspiracy bloggers at the Washington Post have provided insightful commentary in line with the growing interest in this complicated area of constitutional law, including a helpful overview from Ilya Somin here, and executive order analysis here. This week David Post cited the English Legal History Blog, in arguing that the moniker “sanctuary” is misapplied and misleading. We will attempt to support such a claim in more detail.

Contemporary American legal context
Decades-old Supreme Court precedent gives us constitutional context for this issue. First, New York v. United States (1992) made clear that the 10th Amendment prevents “commandeering” of state governments to enforce participation in federal regulatory programmes. This was applied to the criminal context in Printz v. United States (1997), where a 5-4 majority led by the late Justice Scalia held unconstitutional certain provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act on similar anti-commandeering grounds.

In NFIB v. Sebelius (2012)—as helpfully flagged by Somin—federal funding conditions with the effect of such commandeering are also unconstitutional. In sum, cities (or even full states) are free to operate in a way that rejects federal cooperation, especially with respect to immigration policies and legislative requirements such as that contained in Section 1373 of the United States federal code (8 U.S.C. § 1373). Section 1373 mandates cooperation between states and the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the January 2017 Executive Order has threatened to attach funds to that requirement. Making funding conditional on such strictures is likely to engage a constitutional question under the 10th Amendment (as outlined above), the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which have been held applicable to “persons who are part of a national community or who have otherwise developed sufficient connection with this country to be considered part of that community.”

The English common law privilege of Sanctuary was born out of principles that pre-date the common law itself. The basis, definition, and limitations of Sanctuary lead to the strong conclusion that the semantics of naming US immigration havens as “sanctuary cities” is at best misleading and ill-founded. At worst, it severely muddies the waters of discussion, preventing serious analysis in this important area. Appreciating the origins of common law Sanctuary is therefore vital to understanding contemporary use of the term.

Origins of Ecclesiastical Sanctuary
St. Augustine of Rome’s successful conversion of the Saxons to Christianity in the 6th Century AD introduced the idea of ecclesiastical Sanctuary to the ruling Saxon King, Aethelbert. In 597 AD—in support of his newly-adopted religion—Aethelbert introduced severe penalties for interrupting the peace of the Church. Clearly, the concept of Sanctuary at its English origin was, and remained to be until its abolition, an ecclesiastical principle and a creature of the Christian Church.

Sanctuary’s original intention in these earliest times was to protect a criminal from the devastating impact of vigilante justice at the hands of his own family and friends—fundamentally opposed to the contemporary notion of an asylum-seeker, who is likely to find refuge with those close to them. Sanctuary was used to nullify the blood feuds that wreaked havoc in Saxon communities and itself interfered with the pre-cursor to sovereign jurisdiction. William the Conqueror—upon his successful conquest of Saxon England in 1066—adopted many of the Saxon laws already in place, including those of Sanctuary. Later Norman Kings continued to support this privilege without controversy.

Around 1250, English common law was clear: a criminal could take Sanctuary in Churches; other consecrated ground; or even within the confines of a consecrated cemetery—it was fundamentally an Ecclesiastical privilege. If the fleeing criminal had no physical ground in which to take refuge, his Sanctuary began as soon as he placed his hand on the Church door. At this time, Sanctuary was still intended to give the common law legal process sufficient time to effectively run its course and not to provide indefinite refuge to criminals. It was a requirement for the criminal to admit his guilt—again drawing a stark contrast with any modern engagement of the term.

Indeed, it was a settled common law principle in the 13th Century that Sanctuary should last no longer than 40 days. After that period had ended, the Church was no longer allowed to provide food to the criminal and the authorities seeking the criminal hoped this would starve him out of his Sanctuary. Any person providing sustenance after the 40 days could be convicted as an accessory to the criminal’s original crime. Thereafter, the criminal had three options open to him. One, he could surrender, two, be exiled from the country at the escort of the authorities, or three: flee to another Sanctuary to begin a fresh 40 day limitation period. The extent to which this Sanctuary-hopping occurred is unclear, but certainly the privilege of Sanctuary was open to abuse.

Sanctuary curtailed
Over the next two centuries, due to abuses of Sanctuary, English public opinion developed to view the practice as the Church openly harbouring criminals. There are even instances of criminals in London successfully running their nefarious activities from within the confines of a Sanctuary. This abuse of Sanctuary was abhorrent to the English public and was seen as far removed from its original intentions as a safe haven from vigilante justice.

Sanctuary was later diluted in 1504 when King Henry VII successfully asked Pope Innocent VIII to allow the authorities to enter Churches and apprehend a criminal when they committed a fresh crime whilst taking Sanctuary. This was an attempt to curb the abuses mentioned above. Henry VIII followed in his father’s footsteps and initiated further reforms. A significant case in 1519 involving St. John’s Priory and Westminster Abbey (two large sanctuaries) challenged the remit of Sanctuary for murder and other heinous crimes. Henry was moved to state that: “I will have [Sanctuary] reformed which has been encroached by abuse, and brought back to the true intention of the makers”.

In 1540, the English Parliament abolished the use of Sanctuaries for the worst crimes such as murder, rape, and arson. It had already been abolished for High Treason. Following these restrictions, Henry VIII established eight Sanctuary cities where approved asylum seekers had to remain permanently. These national Sanctuaries quickly fell out of use in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, in the mid-16th Century.

During his reign, Henry VIII attempted to restrict the use of Sanctuary by making it unappealing for criminals. A Sanctuary seeker had to wear a 10-inch badge on their upper arm, often had to adhere to a curfew, and had to be branded with an ‘A’ on their right thumb. A 16th Century Sanctuary became something much more closely aligned with a gulag than a haven of respite: not something the Constitutional Framers would transpose over a century later.

Following continued controversy, negative public opinion and the numerous restrictions outlined above, Parliament finalised the reform in 1624 by passing a Statute that stated “no Sanctuary or Privilege of Sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case”. Plainly, 150 years prior to American Independence, the English principle of Sanctuary had been diluted into obscurity, with the original concept of a place of haven long consigned to the annals of history, excluded from the common law.

It is worth noting at this juncture that there was no mention of Sanctuary Cities (or anything like them) in the 85 Federalist Papers, nor in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Although the Founders did describe the Capitol as a “sanctuary of liberty” and Jefferson remarked that it would be the nation’s “first temple”, no illusions were made as to the importance of federalism, the notion that states’ rights were fundamental to a successfully operating Republic, and the separation of Church and State.

Constitutional Convention

The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: no mention of Sanctuary Cities

Closing remarks
As the foregoing outline has shown, the common law principle of Sanctuary is an English ecclesiastical principle deriving from early Christianity. Its status as a bargaining chip between the Church and the State in the 15th and 16th Centuries led to its ultimate abolition as a common law practice, far removed from its haven-providing origin. The Philadelphia Convention of the late 18th Century included an emphatic decision to separate the Church from the State, with the Union founded on this secular basis. According to long-standing judicial precedent it is plainly unconstitutional under the republican Constitution for the federal Government to commandeer sovereign state cities for its own bidding in an unfettered way. Contemporary American usage of the term “sanctuary cities”—as has become de rigeur in modern political discourse—cannot be divorced from the historical (originalist) underpinnings of the term “Sanctuary”. To do so causes injury to tenets of federalism, constitutional law, and endangers the secularity of the debate.


*Charlie Eastaugh is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Surrey. He has a PhD in US Constitutional Law and tweets at: @inapposite
His contributions were limited to those of legal accuracy and any criticism or opinion expressed in this commentary remains that of the English Legal History Blog.

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History of Capital Punishment

Hanging. The most popular method for the death penalty throughout English Legal History.

The legal history of capital punishment in the United Kingdom is an interesting one and ranges across many centuries from the extreme of having no crimes strictly punishable by death to a multitude and back to none. In early Norman times, the principles of the common law in relation to the punishment of crimes were very simple. If the crime was a misdemeanor (minor or petty offences) then the punishment was at the discretion of the justices of the court.

For felonies (serious offences) the criminal was put on the king’s mercy which usually involved the ordering of mutilation in the form of castration or blinding. This was seen as a mercy rather than imposing the ultimate punishment of death.

By the early 13th Century, a fixed penalty of death was imposed for almost all felonies. For treason, this was death by being hung, drawn and quartered and for other felonies, simply death by hanging. This fixed penalty was grossly inflexible and various methods were used to mitigate the sentence of death, until later reforms abolished it. These methods included Sanctuary (my post on which can be found here), Benefit of Clergy, Pardons and Jury Mitigation. Later blog posts will deal with the latter three topics.

This state of affairs continued for some time. The expertise of the legal profession was directed towards thinking of incredible ways to avoid the death penalty, rather than reform it. Still by 1688 there were 50 offences within statute law that carried a death sentence, this rose to 220 by the the late 18th Century. These offences were wide-ranging and even included ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’. It is a testament to the above mentioned methods of avoidance that, between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were given but only 7,000 people were executed.

The legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly KC, also responsible for calling for the abolition of slavery, succeeded in having the death penalty abolished from a mere two offences, namely pick-pocketing and stealing from bleaching grounds.

A year after Sir Romilly’s death in 1818, a Parliamentary select committee looking at the issue of the death penalty led to several statutes that slowly, and in a piecemeal fashion, abolished the death penalty from many offences.

By the 1860s, there were only several offences that still attracted the death penalty. These were murder, treason, piracy, and arson in naval dockyards. This remained the same until 1957 when difficult cases arose as regards capital punishment for murder. It led to the introduction of the Homicide Act 1957 which suspended the practice and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 which abolished it entirely. Death as a punishment for Arson in naval dockyards was repealed by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

Although beheading was removed as a potential punishment for treason in 1973, hanging remained until 1998 when the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished some of the last remnants of capital punishment in the UK, with the abolition of the punishment for treason and piracy.

The last remnant of the death penalty in the UK (the punishment existed within military jurisdiction during wartime) was abolished by the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since 2004, the UK has been signed up to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the death penalty in any circumstances. It would be impossible for the UK to bring in laws to reinstate the death penalty unless they were to formally withdraw from the Convention.

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The Privilege of Sanctuary

Westminster Abbey was an extremely popular Sanctuary.

In medieval England, a criminal could go to a church and claim protection from the law. The authorities and the processes of criminal justice could not reach him. This was based on the idea that no force could be used on the consecrated and holy ground of the churches.

This privilege, called sanctuary, could be taken up by any criminals, ranging from murderers, rapists and thieves to the simple debtor who owed a sum of money.

The common law of the time stated that the privilege of sanctuary could only be used for up to 40 days. However, there were in existence some large sanctuaries (such as Westminster Abbey) that could house hundreds of criminals and had the facilities for them to stay indefinitely. When the criminals attempted to continue their criminal activities from the Abbey, the practice of these large sanctuaries was heavily frowned upon by the authorities and the public.

A criminal taking sanctuary had to, within the time limit of 40 days, decide on one of two courses of action. He could either turn up at the court and declare he was ready for a trial or he could elect to leave the country forever. He would then be escorted safely to the nearest port and would journey to a new country.

Judges attempted on several occasions to stop the proliferation of sanctuaries by stating that no new ones could be made without the King’s consent. However, many were already in existence and continued their activities.

There was a significant case between 1516 and 1520 regarding a large sanctuary at St John’s Priory. This led to calls for reform and Henry VIII declared that the ancient kings and old popes never had the intention of letting the sanctuaries be used to such a gross extent.

Henry proceeded to abolish almost all sanctuaries and removed the possibility of using the privilege for almost all crimes. The practice did not breathe its last until a statute of 1624 which stated ‘no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary to be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case’.

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