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What is a Bill of Attainder?

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  • Written By: S. Ashraf
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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A bill of attainder is an act by either a legislature or parliament that singles out a group or an individual as guilty of a crime. It permits the guilty party or parties to be punished without benefit of a trial or a hearing in a court of law, and it sets the punishment. By passing a bill of attainder, a legislature may declare guilt and take away the liberty, life or property of a particular group or individual. Bill of attainder are no longer used in countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Canada.

Bills of attainder have a long history in English common law commencing in 1321, when they were used to punish supporters of King Edward II. English monarchs used them mainly to inflict the death penalty on persons thought guilty of treason or rebellion in instances where it might be difficult to prove guilt in a court. Usually, such a bill of attainder carried with it a corruption of blood or taintedness provision stating that the person’s property could not pass to his or her heirs. In 1798, they were used for the last time in England to punish the leader of the Irish Rebellion. Bills or writs of attainder, as they are sometimes called, were not completely abolished in England until 1870.

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Bills of attainder were commonly used in England, so they applied to British colonies and became part of the legal procedures of countries such as Canada and the United States. One of the motivations of the American Revolution was outrage over the use of bills of attainder in the Colonies. In spite of that, during the American Revolution, they proved a useful tool for the colonists. Bills of attainder were passed by the legislatures of many colonies to assess punishments and penalties against persons thought disloyal to the American cause.

Once the Revolution was over, it was a different story. Unjust use of bills of attainder by the English motivated the prohibition of them being written into law in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution expressly prohibits either a state or the federal government from passing bills of attainder. All accused persons are guaranteed trials in court.

In the United States, a bill of attainder is seen as violating the separation of powers mandated by the Constitution. When passing a bill of attainder, the legislative branch takes on powers belonging only to the judiciary branch by pronouncing guilt and punishment. Bills of attainder also are not permitted under the rules of Canadian parliamentary practice.

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