Ex Parte Milligan

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Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866) was an important United States Supreme Court case involving civilians and military tribunals.

The case

Lambdin Milligan and four others were accused of planning to steal Union weapons and invade Union prisoner-of-war camps and were sentenced to hang by a military court in 1864. However, their execution was not set until May 1865, so they were able to argue the case after the Civil War ended.

The decision

The Supreme Court decided that the suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional because civilian courts were still operating, and the Constitution of the United States (according to the Court) only provided for suspension of habeas corpus if these courts are actually forced closed. In essence, the court ruled that military tribunals could not try civilians in areas where civil courts were open, even during wartime.

The court also ruled that so long as local civilian courts are open, citizens may not be tried by military tribunals. It further observed that during the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, citizens may only be held without charges: not tried, and certainly not executed by military tribunals. After all, the writ of habeas corpus is not the right itself, but merely the ability to issue orders demanding the right's enforcement.

It is important to note the political environment of the decision. Post-war, under a radical Republican Congress, the Court was reluctant to hand down any decision that questioned the legitimacy of military courts, especially in the occupied south. The President's ability to suspend habeas corpus independently of Congress, a central issue, was left unaddressed.

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