"War" and Civil Liberties

On Joe Scarborough's morning show, Newsweek's Jon Meacham continues that magazine's attempt to mainstream torture and Executive abuse of power "in time of war." Let's accept the dubious premise that federal policy against potential terrorist attacks on the United States is "a war," what is the basis for arguing that the Constitution becomes inoperative in time of war? Meacham argues that Abraham Lincoln made that argument and acted in that fashion. This is not accurate history. More importantly, it is not legally relevant. With the Al Marri case now going before the Court, this question will actually be before the Supreme Court. Let's consider the issues on the flip.

The main argument brought to bear that Lincoln viewed civil liberties as malleable in time of war is that he unilaterally suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the four month period from the start of the civil war to the opening of the 1861 session of Congress. The Heritage Foundation, a proponent of the Newsweek/Meacham view, describes the events thusly:

In the 80 days that elapsed between Abraham Lincoln's April 1861 call for troops--the beginning of the Civil War--and the official convening of Congress in special session on July 4, 1861, Lincoln performed a whole series of important acts by sheer assumption of presidential power. Lincoln, without congressional approval, called forth the militia to "suppress said combinations,"6 which he ordered "to disperse and retire peacefully" to their homes.7 He increased the size of the Army and Navy, expended funds for the purchase of weapons, instituted a blockade--an act of war--and suspended the precious writ of habeas corpus, all without congressional approval.

Lincoln did all of these things. Did he have the power to do so? It seems implausible to argue that he did not have such power (most do not involve limits on civil liberties, but rather routine exercise of Executive power), with the exception of suspension of habeas corpus (the Supreme Court ruled in Ex parte Milligan that the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus resided with the Congress, not the President. more on Milligan in a moment.)

A key point here is that Lincoln was operating during an insurrection in the United States. For those unfamiliar with the history, there has been precisely one civil war in the history of the United States. Almost by definition Lincoln's actions are sui generis to this discussion. But let's consider what the Supreme Court decided in Milligan:

The controlling question in the case is this: upon the facts stated in Milligan's petition and the exhibits filed, had the military commission mentioned in it jurisdiction legally to try and sentence him? Milligan, not a resident of one of the rebellious states or a prisoner of war, but a citizen of Indiana for twenty years past and never in the military or naval service, is, while at his home, arrested by the military power of the United States, imprisoned, and, on certain criminal charges preferred against him, tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged by a military commission, organized under the direction of the military commander of the military district of Indiana. Had this tribunal the legal power and authority to try and punish this man?

No graver question was ever considered by this court, nor one which more nearly concerns the rights of the whole people, for it is the birthright of every American citizen when charged with crime to be tried and punished according to law. The power of punishment is alone through the means which the laws have provided for that purpose, and, if they are ineffectual, there is an immunity from punishment, no matter how great an offender the individual may be or how much his crimes may have shocked the sense of justice of the country or endangered its safety. By the protection of the law, human rights are secured; withdraw that protection and they are at the mercy of wicked rulers or the clamor of an excited people. If there was law to justify this military trial, it is not our province to interfere; if there was not, it is our duty to declare the nullity of the whole proceedings. The decision of this question does not depend on argument or judicial precedents, numerous and highly illustrative as they are. These precedents inform us of the extent of the struggle to preserve liberty and to relieve those in civil life from military trials. The founders of our government were familiar with the history of that struggle, and secured in a written constitution every right which the people had wrested from power during a contest of ages. By that Constitution and the laws authorized by it, this question must be determined. The provisions of that instrument on the administration of criminal justice are too plain and direct to leave room for misconstruction or doubt of their true meaning. Those applicable to this case are found in that clause of the original Constitution which says "That the trial of all crimes, except in case of impeachment, shall be by jury," and in the fourth, fifth, and sixth articles of the amendments. The fourth proclaims the right to be secure in person and effects against unreasonable search and seizure, and directs that a judicial warrant shall not issue "without proof of probable cause supported by oath or affirmation." The fifth declares "that no person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on presentment by a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."

And the sixth guarantees the right of trial by jury, in such manner and with such regulations that, with upright judges, impartial juries, and an able bar, the innocent will be saved and the guilty punished. It is in these words:

"In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted with the witnesses against him, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence."

These securities for personal liberty thus embodied were such as wisdom and experience had demonstrated to be necessary for the protection of those accused of crime. And so strong was the sense of the country of their importance, and so jealous were the people that these rights, highly prized, might be denied them by implication, that, when the original Constitution was proposed for adoption, it encountered severe opposition, and, but for the belief that it would be so amended as to embrace them, it would never have been ratified.

Remember, the Milligan Court is passing on a law enacted by Congress and signed by the President, not some unilateral action by the President. And it is a law passed during the Civil War, the most exigent of circumstances the US government ever faced. Clearly no one can argue that the national emergency we currently face is close to comparable to the Civil War. And even given those exigencies, the Milligan Court wrote:

Time has proven the discernment of our ancestors, for even these provisions, expressed in such plain English words that it would seem the ingenuity of man could not evade them, are now, after the lapse of more than seventy years, sought to be avoided. Those great and good men foresaw that troublous times would arise when rulers and people would become restive under restraint, and seek by sharp and decisive measures to accomplish ends deemed just and proper, and that the principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril unless established by irrepealable law. The history of the world had taught them that what was done in the past might be attempted in the future. The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times and under all circumstances. No doctrine involving more pernicious consequences was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism, but the theory of necessity on which it is based is false, for the government, within the Constitution, has all the powers granted to it which are necessary to preserve its existence, as has been happily proved by the result of the great effort to throw off its just authority.

(Emphasis supplied.) It is as if the Milligan Court knew that the Meachams, Stuart Taylors and Evan Thomases of the world would always be around, defending the indefensible. The Milligan court continued:

But it is said that the jurisdiction is complete under the "laws and usages of war." It can serve no useful purpose to inquire what those laws and usages are, whence they originated, where found, and on whom they operate; they can never be applied to citizens in states which have upheld the authority of the government, and where the courts are open and their process unobstructed. This court has judicial knowledge that, in Indiana, the Federal authority was always unopposed, and its courts always open to hear criminal accusations and redress grievances, and no usage of war could sanction a military trial there for any offence whatever of a citizen in civil life in nowise connected with the military service. Congress could grant no such power, and, to the honor of our national legislature be it said, it has never been provoked by the state of the country even to attempt its exercise. One of the plainest constitutional provisions was therefore infringed when Milligan was tried by a court not ordained and established by Congress and not composed of judges appointed during good behavior.

Why was he not delivered to the Circuit Court of Indiana to be proceeded against according to law? No reason of necessity could be urged against it, because Congress had declared penalties against the offences charged, provided for their punishment, and directed that court to hear and determine them. And soon after this military tribunal was ended, the Circuit Court met, peacefully transacted its business, and adjourned. It needed no bayonets to protect it, and required no military aid to execute its judgments. It was held in a state, eminently distinguished for patriotism, by judges commissioned during the Rebellion, who were provided with juries, upright, intelligent, and selected by a marshal appointed by the President. The government had no right to conclude that Milligan, if guilty, would not receive in that court merited punishment, for its records disclose that it was constantly engaged in the trial of similar offences, and was never interrupted in its administration of criminal justice. If it was dangerous, in the distracted condition of affairs, to leave Milligan unrestrained of his liberty because he "conspired against the government, afforded aid and comfort to rebels, and incited the people to insurrection," the law said arrest him, confine him closely, render him powerless to do further mischief, and then present his case to the grand jury of the district, with proofs of his guilt, and, if indicted, try him according to the course of the common law. If this had been done, the Constitution would have been vindicated, the law of 1863 enforced, and the securities for personal liberty preserved and defended.

Another guarantee of freedom was broken when Milligan was denied a trial by jury. The great minds of the country have differed on the correct interpretation to be given to various provisions of the Federal Constitution, and judicial decision has been often invoked to settle their true meaning; but, until recently, no one ever doubted that the right of trial by jury was fortified in the organic law against the power of attack. It is now assailed, but if ideas can be expressed in words and language has any meaning, this right -- one of the most valuable in a free country -- is preserved to everyone accused of crime who is not attached to the army or navy or militia in actual service. The sixth amendment affirms that, "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury," language broad enough to embrace all persons and cases; but the fifth, recognizing the necessity of an indictment or presentment before anyone can be held to answer for high crimes, "excepts cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service, in time of war or public danger," and the framers of the Constitution doubtless meant to limit the right of trial by jury in the sixth amendment to those persons who were subject to indictment or presentment in the fifth.

Responding to the claims of the Meachams of the time, the Milligan Court wrote:

. . . It is claimed that martial law covers with its broad mantle the proceedings of this military commission. The proposition is this: that, in a time of war, the commander of an armed force (if, in his opinion, the exigencies of the country demand it, and of which he is to judge) has the power, within the lines of his military district, to suspend all civil rights and their remedies and subject citizens, as well as soldiers to the rule of his will, and, in the exercise of his lawful authority, cannot be restrained except by his superior officer or the President of the United States.

If this position is sound to the extent claimed, then, when war exists, foreign or domestic, and the country is subdivided into military departments for mere convenience, the commander of one of them can, if he chooses, within his limits, on the plea of necessity, with the approval of the Executive, substitute military force for and to the exclusion of the laws, and punish all persons as he thinks right and proper, without fixed or certain rules.

The statement of this proposition shows its importance, for, if true, republican government is a failure, and there is an end of liberty regulated by law. Martial law established on such a basis destroys every guarantee of the Constitution, and effectually renders the "military independent of and superior to the civil power" -- the attempt to do which by the King of Great Britain was deemed by our fathers such an offence that they assigned it to the world as one of the causes which impelled them to declare their independence. Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together; the antagonism is irreconcilable, and, in the conflict, one or the other must perish.

This nation, as experience has proved, cannot always remain at peace, and has no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln, and if this right is conceded, and the calamities of war again befall us, the dangers to human liberty are frightful to contemplate. If our fathers had failed to provide for just such a contingency, they would have been false to the trust reposed in them. They knew -- the history of the world told them -- the nation they were founding, be its existence short or long, would be involved in war; how often or how long continued human foresight could not tell, and that unlimited power, wherever lodged at such a time, was especially hazardous to freemen. For this and other equally weighty reasons, they secured the inheritance they had fought to maintain by incorporating in a written constitution the safeguards which time had proved were essential to its preservation. Not one of these safeguards can the President or Congress or the Judiciary disturb, except the one concerning the writ of habeas corpus.

It is essential to the safety of every government that, in a great crisis like the one we have just passed through, there should be a power somewhere of suspending the writ of habeas corpus. In every war, there are men of previously good character wicked enough to counsel their fellow-citizens to resist the measures deemed necessary by a good government to sustain its just authority and overthrow its enemies, and their influence may lead to dangerous combinations. In the emergency of the times, an immediate public investigation according to law may not be possible, and yet the period to the country may be too imminent to suffer such persons to go at large. Unquestionably, there is then an exigency which demands that the government, if it should see fit in the exercise of a proper discretion to make arrests, should not be required to produce the persons arrestedin answer to a writ of habeas corpus. The Constitution goes no further. It does not say, after a writ of habeas corpus is denied a citizen, that he shall be tried otherwise than by the course of the common law; if it had intended this result, it was easy, by the use of direct words, to have accomplished it. The illustrious men who framed that instrument were guarding the foundations of civil liberty against the abuses of unlimited power; they were full of wisdom, and the lessons of history informed them that a trial by an established court, assisted by an impartial jury, was the only sure way of protecting the citizen against oppression and wrong. Knowing this, they limited the suspension to one great right, and left the rest to remain forever inviolable. But it is insisted that the safety of the country in time of war demands that this broad claim for martial law shall be sustained. If this were true, it could be well said that a country, preserved at the sacrifice of all the cardinal principles of liberty, is not worth the cost of preservation. Happily, it is not so.

. . . Martial law cannot arise from a threatened invasion. The necessity must be actual and present, the invasion real, such as effectually closes the courts and deposes the civil administration. . . . It follows from what has been said on this subject that there are occasions when martial rule can be properly applied. If, in foreign invasion or civil war, the courts are actually closed, and it is impossible to administer criminal justice according to law, then, on the theatre of active military operations, where war really prevails, there is a necessity to furnish a substitute for the civil authority, thus overthrown, to preserve the safety of the army and society, and as no power is left but the military, it is allowed to govern by martial rule until the laws can have their free course. As necessity creates the rule, so it limits its duration, for, if this government is continued after the courts are reinstated, it is a gross usurpation of power. Martial rule can never exist where the courts are open and in the proper and unobstructed exercise of their jurisdiction. It is also confined to the locality of actual war. Because, during the late Rebellion, it could have been enforced in Virginia, where the national authority was overturned and the courts driven out, it does not follow that it should obtain in Indiana, where that authority was never disputed and justice was always administered. And so, in the case of a foreign invasion, martial rule may become a necessity in one state when, in another, it would be "mere lawless violence."

Milligan remains precedent. Perhaps Jon Meacham and his friends might take the time to read it.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Not just Meacham et. al. (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Lora on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:34:05 AM EST
    Perhaps the incoming administration and all lawmakers might take the time to read it as well.  I'm glad I took the time.

    And lo it came to pass (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by Molly Bloom on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 10:03:09 AM EST
    in January of 2001

    Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln

    The question is (none / 0) (#7)
    by jondee on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 01:49:45 PM EST
    When, according to the "minds" that have always guided entities like the Heritage Foundation, HAVNT "we" been at war, in one form and theatre or another?

    If it isnt the terrist family running the Tim Hortons down the street, its the been the omgoing menace of socialist/communist subversion in Latin America or Madison, Wisconsin.


    This: (none / 0) (#1)
    by andgarden on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:14:34 AM EST
    Martial rule can never exist where the courts are open and in the proper and unobstructed exercise of their jurisdiction.
    makes me think just a little bit about Gitmo, to be honest.

    Anyway, thanks.

    As does this statement: (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by Robot Porter on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 10:20:27 AM EST
    Martial law established on such a basis destroys every guarantee of the Constitution, and effectually renders the "military independent of and superior to the civil power" -- the attempt to do which by the King of Great Britain was deemed by our fathers such an offence that they assigned it to the world as one of the causes which impelled them to declare their independence.

    why do you think they put (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:47:40 AM EST
    them there to begin with? it was to keep them away from a fully functioning civil court system, such as would be found in any state, or PR, or the US VI. they had to keep them in a place that only has a military system, to avoid that whole evidence, counsel, etc thing.

    it was the only way to be sure.


    So...why not keep them in (none / 0) (#8)
    by oldpro on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 01:50:05 PM EST
    Iraq or Afghanistan?

    And why not return them there from whence they came to those 'new democracies' to deal with in their courts of law?  Hmmm?


    No, Big Tent, you speak here for each & (none / 0) (#6)
    by wurman on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 12:57:57 PM EST
    every citizen & resident & inhabitant & visitor within the legal jurisdiction of the United States.

    The Hon. Barbara C. Jordan:

    My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.

    Your quotations from Milligan prove the obvious.

    The Wilson administration (none / 0) (#9)
    by jondee on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 02:25:49 PM EST
    wasnt exactly civil liberties friendly during WWI, as I recall. Then you have the Japanese American internment camps.

    Maybe it's time we stopped talking this quasi-romantic language about wars bringing out "both the best and worst in people" and started facing the fact that it mainly brings out the worst in people; regardless of how well it may treat some Wall St predators and their confederates in the Beltway.