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Indiana Court Historical Society Makes a Movie: Watch Free Online

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As the Civil War raged, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan urged people to fight for slavery.

He told them to take arms against the U.S. government. He said he would rather die than lose his liberty.

"Let liberty be your watchword, and let it resound from every stump in Indiana," he said in a speech. That was Aug. 13, 1864.

Now the Historical Society of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has brought his speech and story back to life.

Ex Parte Milligan

The reenactment is part of an hour-long documentary, and it is available online. It is free and includes a 74-page guide for teachers to use in middle schools.

The presentation includes commentary and reviews of three landmark cases in Indiana's legal history. Ex Parte Milligan ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court and established that a military court has no jurisdiction to try civilians.

The decision saved Milligan's life. But he spent almost two years in jail before the High Court intervened.

After military spies heard the speech, soldiers arrested Milligan and put him in a stockade. A military court then convicted him of insurrection and sentenced him to death by hanging.

In a petition for writ of habeas corpus to the federal court, Milligan's attorney argued that the military tribunal lacked jurisdiction. District Judge David McDonald and Supreme Court Justice David Davis agreed, and strategized a way to expedite the matter.

In Chambers

In the film, the judges meet in chambers and decide to return a split decision. At the time, that would ensure the case went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That is our best course," Judge McDonald says.

Nearly a year after the war ended, the High Court ruled that the military court had no power over civilians.

"There being no jurisdiction of the subject-matter or of the party, you are bound to relieve the petitioner," the court said on April 3, 1866. "It is as much the duty of a judge to protect the innocent as it is to punish the guilty."

Milligan was released and spent the rest of his life portraying himself as a martyr for free speech. The documentary said that he was a traitor, but that the court decision was the law.

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