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What is an Attainder?

Updated on August 23, 2010

An attainder, in English law, is the revocation of the civil rights of a convicted criminal. The practice began in medieval England and lasted until the end of the 19th century. Attainder originally was imposed on persons convicted of treason or some other serious crime and sentenced to death or banishment. Attainder deprived the convicted person of any property and titles that he possessed or was about to inherit.

Attainder was normally pronounced by a judge after a criminal trial, but the English Parliament also passed special acts called bills of attainder that sentenced accused persons to death without a trial. In such a case, Parliament often denied the person the right to be present and defend himself. The practice became particularly abusive during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Tudor and Stuart kings accused their political opponents of treason and forced Parliament to pass bills of attainder against them. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which limited the powers of the king, Parliament no longer imposed death sentences, although it continued to pass special bills that took away the rank and property of individuals. The last such bill was enacted in 1798. The practice of attainder was abolished in England by the Forfeiture Act of 1870.

In the United States the Constitution prohibits the passage of bills of attainder. This prohibition was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 1946, when it declared void an act of Congress that denied salaries to some government officials. The court held that such an act was effectively a bill of attainder and violated the citizen's right to a fair trial.

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