Merryman Case: Review Background Information

One week after the war begins, a pro-Confederate mob attacks Union regiments in Baltimore. Four soldiers and a dozen citizens die in the rioting. The city’s unrest and secessionist sentiment coupled with its strategic location just north of Washington put the capital at risk. It’s not clear at all that Union troops can arrive here safely on the rail lines to defend us in Washington.

To restore order, I authorize General-in-Chief Scott to arrest hundreds of Maryland citizens because they were suspected of participating in the rebellion. This included militia officer John Merryman, who was charged with directing acts of sabotage as well as recruiting and training Confederate sympathizers.

Merryman’s lawyer petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, requiring this military arrest to be justified in a civilian court. On May 26, the presiding federal circuit judge, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, issues the writ, arguing that the power to suspend civil liberties belongs to Congress, not the president.

Must I obey Taney’s order?

Name of Person 1

Roger Taney (1777-1864)

Maryland native, Chief Justice of the United States. Author of the notorious Dred Scott decision (1857). Taney, who privately supported secession and opposed Republican war measures, remained on the bench until his death in 1864.

Name of Person 1

Edward Bates (1793-1869)

Lawyer, former Congressman, member of Lincoln’s cabinet. Opposed to slavery, he joined the Republican party from Missouri in 1856 and became a candidate for president in 1860. He eventually threw his support to Lincoln, who later appointed him attorney general– the first cabinet member from west of the Mississippi.

Obey the Order

The provision authorizing the suspension of the writ appears in Article I of the Constitution, specifying the powers of Congress. “The President … cannot suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus nor authorize a military officer to do it.”

Ignore the Order

The President has the legal [authority] to arrest and imprison persons who are …engaged in a great and dangerous insurrection [and] is fully justified in refusing to obey a writ of habeas corpus.

Those are my choices – Obey Taney’s order and acknowledge the authority of the federal courts, or ignore the order at least temporarily and stand by my decision to suspend the writ until Congress reconvenes in emergency session. What should I do?