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Context of 'April 3, 1866: Supreme Court Rules Military Tribunals Unconstitutional'

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President Abraham Lincoln warns that powerful corporations threaten to exert undue influence on American elections and upon society in general. In a letter, he warns of “a crisis approaching,” writing: “As a result of the [Civil W]ar, corporations have become enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow. The money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its rule by preying upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is concentrated in few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” [Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Abraham Lincoln

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In the case of Ex parte Milligan, the Supreme Court strikes down a military tribunal used by former President Lincoln to prosecute Northern civilians, ruling that the Constitution limits a president’s power even during times of emergency. “The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people,” the Court writes, “equally in war and 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.” The defendants, the Court rules, must be tried in civilian courts. [Coleman, 2005 pdf file; PBS, 12/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 17]

Entity Tags: Abraham Lincoln

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Young White House attorney John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), an advocate of expanded presidential powers (see June-July 1983), is selected to respond to a letter from retired Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. The former justice is commenting on the Reagan administration’s decision to unilaterally invade the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada. Goldberg wrote that President Reagan probably did violate the Constitution by sending troops to Grenada without Congressional approval, and in that sense has left himself open to impeachment. However, he added, the invasion had succeeded in establishing democracy in that nation. Therefore Reagan’s actions should be compared to those of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, because, like Lincoln, he “acted in good faith and in the belief that this served our national interest” (see April 12 - July 1861). Drafting the letter for Reagan’s signature, Roberts thanks Goldberg for his defense of Reagan but insists that the invasion was perfectly legal. The president, Roberts writes, has “inherent authority in international affairs to defend American lives and interests and, as commander in chief, to use the military when necessary in discharging these responsibilities.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 257]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, John G. Roberts, Jr, Arthur Goldberg, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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