Wartime or Peacetime? Lee v. Madigan Case Study

Learning Gateways: Wartime or Peacetime? Lee v. Madigan Case Study

This case study helps to illustrate how the legal distinctions between wartime and peacetime, while significant, can often be unclear. Students analyze World War II “ending” documents, then consider how each might influence the outcome of the case Lee v. Madigan. Finally, students compare all of their analyses to the Supreme Court opinion issued in the case.

What you will Need:

Copies of Lee v. Madigan Case Study 

Copies of World War II Ending Documents

  • Document 1: German Instrument of Surrender, May 8, 1945
  • Document 2: Japan Announces Surrender, August 14, 1945
  • Document 3: Japan Instrument of Surrender, September 2, 1945
  • Document 4: Proclamation 2714, Cessation of Hostilities of World War II, December 31, 1945
  • Document 5: Proclamation 2950, Termination of State of War with Germany, October 24, 1951
  • Document 6: Treaty of Peace with Japan, April 28, 1952



Part I: When did World War II end?


1. Divide students into six small groups. Distribute one of the World War II Ending Documents to each group.


2. Ask each group to study their document, then discuss the following questions:

  • What is your document?
  • What was the purpose of your document? What did your document do?
  • How does your document contribute to the ending of World War II?


3. Allow each group to share their documents with the rest of the class. Compile a list of all of the documents in chronological order for the class. Explain that all of the documents are related to the ending of World War II. Ask students to discuss the following questions as a class:

  • What types of documents do you see?
  • Is there anything about this list that surprises you?
  • Which document(s) do you think are the most “official?” Why?
  • Based on these documents, when do you think World War II ended? Why?

4. Explain to students that the U.S. Supreme Court had to answer this very question—“When did World War II end?” in 1959 in a case called Lee v. Madigan.


Part II: Lee v. Madigan


1. Distribute copies of the Lee v. Madigan case study.  As a class or in groups, review the facts of the case:


Facts of the Case


On June 10, 1949, John Lee, a prisoner at the United States Army Disciplinary Barracks at Camp Cooke, in California, and three others, were charged with killing another inmate, Charlie Taylor. Lee had served with the U.S. Army in France during World War II, and was still an active soldier. He was court-martialed, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He challenged the verdict based on Article 92 of the Laws of War, which  provided that “no person shall be tried by court-martial for murder or rape committed within the geographical limits of the States of the Union and the District of Columbia in time of peace.” Lee argued that the date of the crime, June 10, 1949, was a time of peace, depriving the court-martial of power over the case.

Ultimately, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958. The question before the Court was essentially whether June 10, 1949 was peacetime or wartime.


2. Discuss the case with students:

  • What happened in the case of John Lee? Why was the legal distinction between “wartime” and “peacetime” so important?
  • Do you think Lee’s challenge of his court martial was appropriate? Why or why not?
  • How might the Court begin to determine whether June 10, 1949 was peacetime or wartime?
  • Based on the document(s) that you reviewed, what do you think the Court’s ruling should be? Why?

3. As a class or in groups, review the Opinion of the Court, and the Dissenting Opinion:


Opinion of the Court


The Court issued its opinion on January 12, 1959, in favor of Lee. Six justices were part of the opinion, which was written by Justice William O. Douglas.

... Since June 10, 1949 -- the critical date involved here -- preceded these latter dates, and, since no previous action by the political branches of our Government had specifically lifted Article 92 from the "state of war" category, it is argued that we were not then "in time of peace" for the purposes of Article 92. That argument gains support from a dictum in Kahn v. Anderson, that the term "in time of peace," as used in Article 92, "signifies peace in the complete sense, officially declared." Of like tenor are generalized statements that the termination of a "state of war" is "a political act" of the other branches of Government, not the Judiciary. ...We do not think that either of those authorities is dispositive of the present controversy. A more particularized and discriminating analysis must be made. We deal with a term that must be construed in light of the precise facts of each case and the impact of the particular statute involved. Congress, in drafting laws, may decide that the Nation may be "at war" for one purpose and "at peace" for another. It may use the same words broadly in one context, narrowly in another. The problem of judicial interpretation is to determine whether, "in the sense of this law," peace had arrived. Only mischief can result if those terms are given one meaning regardless of the statutory context.

We deal with the term "in time of peace" in the setting of a grant of power to military tribunals to try people for capital offenses. Did Congress design a broad or a narrow grant of authority? Is the authority of a court-martial to try a soldier for a civil crime, such as murder or rape, to be generously or strictly construed?

We approach the analysis of the term "in time of peace" as used in Article 92 in the same manner. Whatever may have been the plan of a later Congress in continuing some controls long after hostilities ceased, we cannot readily assume that the earlier Congress used "in time of peace" in Article 92 to deny soldiers or civilians the benefit of jury trials for capital offenses four years after all hostilities had ceased. To hold otherwise would be to make substantial rights turn on a fiction. We will not presume that Congress used the words "in time of peace" in that sense. The meaning attributed to them is at war with common sense, destructive of civil rights, and unnecessary for realization of the balanced scheme promulgated by the Articles of War. We hold that June 10, 1949, was "in time of peace" as those words were used in Article 92. ...


Dissenting Opinions


Justice John Marshall Harlan II and Tom C. Clark dissented from, or disagreed with, the Court’s opinion.

... today's decision is demonstrably wrong. This Court has consistently, for nearly 100 years, recognized in many contexts that a cessation of active hostilities does not denote the end of "war" or the beginning of "peace" as those or similar terms have been used from time to time by Congress in legislation.

... This Court, in construing a statute, recognized that "'The state of war' may be terminated by treaty or legislation or Presidential proclamation. Whatever the mode, its termination is a political act."

... The Court says that "Congress, in drafting laws, may decide that the Nation may be at war' for one purpose, and `at peace' for another." Of course it may. But the Court points to no case, and I know of none, which has construed statutory language similar to that found in Article 92 to mean anything but "peace in the complete sense, officially declared." Under these circumstances ... the conclusion seems to me unmistakable that Congress intended that "peace" in Article 92 means … congressional legislation.

Today's decision casts a cloud upon the meaning of all federal legislation the impact of which depends upon the existence of "peace" or "war." Hitherto, legislation of this sort has been construed according to well defined principles, the Court looking to "treaty or legislation or Presidential proclamation," to ascertain whether a "state of war" exists. The Court, in an effort to make a "more particularized and discriminating analysis," has apparently jettisoned these principles. It is far from clear to me just what has taken their place. ...

The Court does not say when the "peace" which it finds to have existed in June, 1949, came into being. It may be noted that the Presidential Proclamation of December 31, 1946, proclaiming the cessation of hostilities, specifically announced that "a state of war still exists," and that Senate Joint Resolution 123, 61 Stat. 449 (effective July 25, 1947), which repealed or rendered inoperative a selected group of wartime measures (not including Article 92), was obviously an expression of a conscious and deliberate decision by Congress that the time had not yet come to end the state of war. It was not until October 19, 1951, that Congress, by joint resolution, declared that "the state of war declared to exist between the United States and the Government of Germany by the joint resolution of Congress approved December 11, 1941, is hereby terminated," and not until April 28, 1952, the effective date of the Japanese Peace Treaty, that peace with Japan was proclaimed by the President. ...

4. Discuss the Court’s opinion with the class:

  • What did the Court ultimately decide? What does the dissenting opinion argue?
  • Which of the documents that you reviewed were available on June 10, 1949? How might these influence the Court’s decision?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the Court’s decision?

5. Wrap up discussion by asking students to consider what governmental actions they think are necessary to distinguish between “wartime” and “peacetime.”



One Year Subscription

A one year subscription to Insights on Law & Society costs $34 and includes three issues of the print magazine, as well as access to additional online resources.

Past Issues

Digital versions of past issues (prior to 2012) are also sold separately at $1.50 for those interested only in specific topics covered by issues of the magazine. Discounts are applied to bulk print orders.

For questions about purschasing or subscribing to Insights, call Customer Service at (800) 285-2221.

Insights on Law and Society is edited by Tiffany Middleton. She can be reached at tiffany.middleton@americanbar.org