Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (1861), is a well-known U.S. federal court case which arose out of the American Civil War. Against President Abraham Lincoln's wishes, Chief Justice Roger Taney, sitting as a judge of the United States Circuit Court for the District of Maryland, ruled: "1. That the president [...] cannot suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, nor authorize a military officer to do it. 2. That a military officer has no right to arrest and detain a person not subject to the rules and articles of war [...] except in aid of the judicial authority, and subject to its control."
Shortly after the April 12â€“April 14, 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina by Confederate forces, President Lincoln called for volunteer troops to reinforce the capital city of Washington, DC. The troops were to protect Washington against possible hostilities originating in nearby Virginia. Virginia declared for the Confederacy on April 17.
On April 19, when the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment responded to the call and entered Baltimore, Maryland as they transferred between train stations on their way to the capital, a riot broke out. Several civilians and soldiers were killed when shooting began. That same day, Lincoln wrote to Attorney General Edward Bates, requesting an opinion on the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Also in response to the riots, Baltimore's Mayor George William Brown and Maryland Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks declared that they would allow no more troop transfers to go through their territory..."(Poole)
Lincoln refused. "You would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow," he replied sternly. "There is no Washington in thatâ€”no Jackson in thatâ€”no manhood or honor in that." He reminded them that Union soldiers were neither birds who could fly over Maryland nor moles who could burrow undergroundâ€¦"Go home and tell your people that if they do not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely."
Lieutenant John Merryman, an officer in the Maryland miltia, used his position to recruit and train soldiers for service in support of the Confederacy. After the Baltimore Riot he was involved in cutting telegraph wires and burning railroad bridges in order to isolate Washington D. C. from the rest of the North.
While reluctant to do so, Lincoln eventually took the advice of his staff and wrote a letter to General Winfield Scott on April 27, 1861. In it, he allowed Scott (or an empowered subordinate) to suspend habeas corpus within the vicinity of the "military line" (Lincoln). This suspension was not announced, and was in fact carefully kept secret at first. Still, the suspension was not explicitly acknowledged. Merryman was at about this time also arrested and imprisoned at Fort McHenry. He swiftly protested this imprisonment and filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to release him from arbitrary imprisonment.
Merryman's complaints went to the circuit judge of the area. The justices of the Supreme Court traditionally sat as circuit judges while the Supreme Court was not in session. For this reason, Merryman's complaint was heard by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. (Poole)
Taney, a partisan opponent of Lincoln's Republican administration, raged against Lincoln granting himself easily abused powers. He found that the president was not authorized to unilaterally suspend habeus corpus, observing that none of the Kings of England exercised such power, writing that Lincoln acting more monarchical and despotic than any actual English monarch (Merryman):
Lincoln, citing Andrew Jackson before him, disregarded the ruling. Relying upon an 1880s manuscript from Lincoln's close friend Ward Hill Lamon, some scholars have contended that Lincoln authorized, then quickly aborted, an arrest warrant against Taney in retaliation for the Merryman ruling. The manuscript and evidence are a relatively new discovery in the historical literature, and the story's authenticity is hotly contested and controversial.
Lincoln responded to the Merryman decision by asking his Attorney General Edward Bates for an opinion supporting his suspension. It formed the basis for Lincoln's July 4 speech to Congress in which he rhetorically asked "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" Lincoln subsequently expanded the zone within which the writ was suspended. After reconvening, Congress rejected a bill favored by Lincoln to sanction his suspensions, and several more district and circuit court rulings affirmed Taney's opinion. Lincoln nevertheless continued making unauthorized suspensions for another two years until the Habeas Corpus Act 1863 formally suspended the writ for him.
The Merryman decision is still among the best-known Civil War-era court cases, and it is one of Taney's most famous opinions. Its legal argument holding that Congress alone may suspend the writ is noted for reiterating the opinion of John Marshall and the court in Ex Parte Bollman and was recently restated by the Supreme Court in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.