In a unanimous decision, the Court reverses the conviction of a man found guilty of paramilitary activity in support of the Confederacy. The decision in Ex parte Milligan, delivered after the end of the Civil War, holds that President Abraham Lincoln violated the Constitution when he authorized military tribunals and suspended the writ of habeus corpus during the war. Lambdin P. Milligan, tried and convicted of conspiracy in one such tribunal, is freed. During the war, in Ex parte Vallandingham (1864), the Court had ducked a case raising a similar issue.
The newly ratified Fourteenth Amendment makes all people born or naturalized in the United States citizens of the country, thereby negating the decision in Scott v. Sandford, which had declared even free blacks to be noncitizens. The amendment also places three new limitations on state power: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Finally, section 5 of the amendment gives Congress the power to enforce, through legislation, the provisions of the amendment. Beginning in the 1920s, the Court will interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that many of the protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights apply not only to the federal government but also to the states.
A group portrait of the Supreme Court in 1866.
Reproduction courtesy of Gettysburg College Library, Special Collections.
Congress enacts a law permitting justices to retire at full salary after serving for at least 10 years, provided they have not yet turned 70. Prior to enactment of this bill, Supreme Court justices had no incentive to leave the court before their death, as no retirement benefits were offered.
The last of the Civil War Amendments, the Fifteenth, is ratified. The amendment does not guarantee the right to vote but says only that it cannot be denied on the grounds of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
In the Slaughterhouse Cases, the first decision regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court interprets the amendment narrowly. Ironically, the cases have nothing to do with the rights of freed African Americans, but rather are the result of lawsuits brought by a group of white businessmen. In a 5-4 decision strongly opposed in dissents by Justices Stephen Field and Joseph Bradley, the Court holds that a distinction exists between state and federal citizenship, and that states are not required to provide their citizens with the same "privileges and immunities" they enjoy as national citizens. In the process, the Court rejects the claim of the Butchers' Benevolent Society of Louisiana that a state-created monopoly of butchers and livestock dealers is unconstitutional.