Brief Fact Summary.
President Lincoln suspended the writs of habeas corpus. This suspension was challenged by Merryman’s attorney.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The Constitution does not give the president the authority to suspend, or authorize the suspension of, the writ of habeas corpus.
President Lincoln authorized his military Commanding General to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. When Merryman was arrested, his lawyer filed for a writ of habeas corpus. The filing was ignored and the attorney argued that the president had acted outside of his constitutional authority. Chief Justice Taney, sitting as a circuit judge, heard the case
May a president suspend the writ of habeas corpus, or delegate the authority to do so?
(Taney, J.) No. The Constitution does not give the president the authority to suspend, or authorize the suspension of, the writ of habeas corpus. The writ of habeas corpus may only be suspended by Congress. The constitutional clause allowing such suspension is found in Article I, which details legislative powers. If the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus were meant to be given to the executive, it would be found in the second article. The president may not take it upon himself to exercise a power reserved to Congress, even in times of emergency, tumult, or danger.
Shortly after this decision, Congress passed legislation that retroactively approved all of President Lincoln’s acts, proclamations, and orders. This included his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. In 1863, Congress passed a habeas corpus act that granted the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War whenever he felt it necessary for public safety.