Of the thousands of cases appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, only a few are accepted by the Court each year. Of those, most fade into obscurity and are interesting only to legal scholars. It is a rare case that stands out as a true landmark decision. In the case of Ex Parte Milligan, not only do we find one of those rare history-making decisions, but we find a case that seemed to attract presidents the way honey affects flies.
This curious case had its origins with a decision by President Abraham Lincoln. To address the emergency of the Civil War, the President ordered military commissions to try the cases of civilians who were charged with crimes against the United States. One such commission heard the case of Lambdin P. Milligan, Stephen Horsey, William A. Bowles, and Andrew Humphreys in Indianapolis, Indiana on October 21, 1864. The men were charged with conspiracy against the U.S. government, offering aid and comfort to the Confederates, and inciting rebellion.
The men were all found guilty on December 10, 1864. Milligan, Bowles, and Horsey were sentenced to death by hanging. Humphreys was sentenced to hard labor for the duration of the war.
Before the death sentence could be carried out, Milligan’s attorney filed for a petition for habeas corpus, arguing that civilian courts should have jurisdiction over the matters. This started the case on a path to the Supreme Court, and the death sentences were stayed, pending the outcome.
In the meantime, President Lincoln was assassinated, and it was left to a second president to deal with the case. President Andrew Johnson commuted the sentences for the three condemned men, changing their punishments to life imprisonment, instead. This did not stop the case from moving forward, however. On March 5, 1866, the case was argued before the Supreme Court. As mentioned in a previous article, this is the point that a third president got involved; one of the attorneys who argued the case before the Supreme Court was James A. Garfield, who would go on to become the 20th President of the United States.
The Court handed down its decision on April 3, 1866, ruling in favor of Milligan and declaring that civilians could not be tried by military tribunals as long as civilian courts were open for business. With that decision, most thought — prematurely, it would turn out — that the matter was ended.
Having been released from custody by the Supreme Court’s ruling, Lambdin Milligan brought a civil suit in 1871, seeking damages for false imprisonment. Among the defendants named in his lawsuit was the fourth occupant of the White House in this saga: President Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant hired an attorney to defend him against Milligan’s claim. The attorney knew the law and the facts weighed heavily against his client, so he employed the only effective tool at his disposal: his gift of oratory.
Witnesses watched with fascination as this young attorney dazzled the jurors and made a persuasive case. As the jurors retired to deliberate, Grant wondered whether the efforts of his attorney would prove to be enough to spare him a costly judgment.
The jury returned on May 30, 1871, and found in favor of Lambdin Milligan. Grant and his attorney held their breaths, waiting for the most important verdict: how much was this going to cost? The answer brought smiles to both their faces. The judgment against Grant and his co-defendants was $5, plus court costs.
The parties left the courthouse and went back to their lives. Grant’s responsibilities took him back to the White House. As it would turn out, his attorney would follow, but that journey would take seventeen years.
Grant’s attorney in that case was Benjamin Harrison, who would ultimately become the 23rd President of the United States, and the fifth POTUS to be ensnared by the legal saga of Lambdin Milligan.
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