The Federal Courts and Their Jurisdiction
U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Maryland
The circuit courts of the federal judiciary were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 and served as the most important trial courts in the federal system for most of the nineteenth century. They had jurisdiction over federal crimes, over suits between citizens of different states (known as diversity jurisdiction), and over most cases in which the federal government was a party. They also had jurisdiction over some appeals from the U.S. district courts. Except for a brief period in 1801–1802, the circuit courts before 1869 did not have their own judges. Supreme Court justices were assigned to regional circuits composed of several states and served with the local district judges on the circuit courts in the judicial districts of those states. The circuit courts were abolished by Congress in 1911.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 granted the district and circuit courts and the Supreme Court authority to issue writs of habeas corpus in response to petitions from individuals detained under federal authority or committed to trial in a federal court. As the justice assigned to the Fourth Circuit, which in 1861 encompassed Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, Chief Justice Roger Taney was authorized to preside over a habeas proceeding in the U.S. Circuit Court for Maryland.
U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland
The district courts were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 and had jurisdiction over admiralty cases, lesser crimes, and smaller suits. An act of 1842 granted the district courts jurisdiction to try all non-capital criminal cases, and an act of 1846 allowed grand juries in the district courts to present indictments for any crime within the jurisdiction of circuit as well as district courts. The latter act also required district courts to remit to the next session of the U.S. circuit court all indictments for capital offenses, including treason. A grand jury in the U.S. District Court for Maryland brought two indictments for treason against John Merryman, and district Judge William Giles remitted both indictments to the circuit court for trial. Merryman was never tried on the treason charges brought against him in 1861 and 1863.
Circuit court or Supreme Court?
Chief Justice Taney suggested he was acting as a Supreme Court justice “in chambers,” meaning outside a regular session of the Court, and several historians have concluded that Ex parte Merryman was a Supreme Court case. As he would in other circuit court sessions, Taney initially sat on the bench with the district judge for Maryland, William Giles, but on the day he announced his opinion, Taney explained that he was acting “in his capacity as Chief Justice” and that Giles had appeared only to offer his counsel. Taney, according to a friend, also crossed out the reference to himself as a circuit judge in the petition from Merryman’s lawyers. In an order to the clerk of the circuit court, Taney initially wrote that his opinion and the records of the proceedings were to be filed with the Supreme Court, but he deleted the reference to the high court and replaced it with the circuit court. Taney appears to have represented himself as Chief Justice to the extent that he could without asserting the authority of the Supreme Court, which he knew would have had no jurisdiction in the case.
A Supreme Court decision of 1807 had asserted that the Supreme Court had authority to issue a writ of habeas corpus only to petitioners who were held under an order of a lower federal court. In Ex parte Bollman, Chief Justice John Marshall had declared that the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus was not part of the original jurisdiction of the Court defined by the Constitution and, as he had already established in Marbury v. Madison, that Congress could not expand the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction. According to this decision, the Supreme Court would have no jurisdiction over the petition of John Merryman, who was detained by the military rather than a federal court. A later account by a confidante of Taney indicated that the Chief Justice acknowledged the full Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over the Merryman case, but that Taney believed the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave individual Supreme Court justices authority to issue writs of habeas corpus to any petitioner held by a federal authority. (No court had so decided.)
Taney realized that his jurisdictional authority in Ex parte Merryman was irrelevant, since he was exercising no judicial power apart from the orders to file the records of the proceedings and to send a copy to President Lincoln. The opinion without a decision was more of a political challenge to the President than a constitutional standoff between two branches of government, and Taney used his prominence as Chief Justice in hopes of inciting further public criticism of Lincoln’s unprecedented assumption of war powers.
Ex parte Merryman and Debates on Civil Liberties During the Civil War