The effect of attainder upon a felon was, in general terms, that all estate, real and personal, was forfeited. In common law, attainder resulted in three ways: by confession, by verdict, and by process or outlawry. The first case was where the prisoner pleaded guilty at the bar, or having fled, confessed guilt and abjured the realm to save his or her life. The second was where the prisoner pleaded not guilty at the bar, and the jury brought in a verdict against him or her. The third, when the person accused made his or her escape and was outlawed.
In England, by statute 33 & 34 Vict. c. 23, attainder upon conviction, with consequent corruption of blood, forfeiture, orescheat, was abolished. In the United States, the doctrine of attainder is now scarcely known, although during and shortly after the Revolution acts of attainder were passed by several of the states. The passage of such bills is expressly forbidden by the Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 9).
Bills of attainder are special acts of the legislature that inflict capital punishments upon persons supposed to be guilty of high offenses, such as treason and felony, without any conviction in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings. If an act inflicts a milder degree of punishment than death, it is called a bill of pains and penalties, but both are included in the prohibition in the Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 9).
The term attainder is derived from attincta, Latin for stained or blackened. When attainder occurred, the condemned person was considered to bear a mark of infamy that corrupted his or her blood. Attainder was eventually abolished in England by statute.
In the United States, attainder is scarcely known today, although several states enacted acts of attainder during the Revolutionary War period. A few states consider the disqualification of a person impeached and convicted to hold any government office to be a type of attainder. Attainder is akin to the concept of civil death, the forefeiture of certain rights and privileges upon conviction of a serious crime.
ATTAINDER. In common law, attainder caused the loss of civil rights and forfeiture of estate of one who had been sentenced to death for treason or felony. Parliament enacted bills of attainder having that effect without criminal trials in ordinary course. During the American Revolution, a few colonial legislatures enacted such bills. They are now prohibited by Article 1, sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution. In United States v. Lovett (1946), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a statute mandating the firing of three federal employees on national-security grounds was unconstitutional as a bill of attainder.
See alsoCommon Law .