Landmark Supreme Court Case: Reid v. Covert (1957)
Reid v. Covert (1957) is the 106th landmark Supreme Court case, seventh in the Foreign Policy module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Reid v. Covert (1957)
Mrs. Covert was accused of killing her husband on an airbase in England. Pursuant to a “status-of-forces” executive agreement with England, which permitted US military courts to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over offenses by U.S. servicemen or their dependents, she was tried and convicted by US court-martial without a jury trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). She petitioned a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that the conviction violated her Fifth & Sixth Amendment rights to be tried by a jury after indictment by a grand jury.
Q: Do American citizens abroad retain the rights granted to them by the Bill of Rights thus rendering Article 2(11) of the United State Code of Military Justice unconstitutional?
A: No. After initially allowing court-martials of civilian spouses abroad, the court reversed itself barring court-martials of civilian spouses abroad.
6-2 holding the military may not deprive American civilians of their Bill of Rights protections by trying them in a military tribunal. Specifically, U.S. citizen civilians outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the United States cannot be tried by U.S. military tribunal, but instead retain the protections guaranteed by the United States Constitution, in this case, trial by jury. Additionally, a plurality of the Court also reaffirmed the president’s ability to enter into international executive agreements, though it held that such agreements cannot contradict federal law or the Constitution.
U.S. citizen civilians abroad have the right to Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment constitutional protections. As United States citizens they were entitled to the protections of the Bill of Rights, notwithstanding that they committed crimes on foreign soil. Justice Black declared:
The concept that the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections against arbitrary government are inoperative when they become inconvenient or when expediency dictates otherwise is a very dangerous doctrine and if allowed to flourish would destroy the benefit of a written Constitution and undermine the basis of our government.
Concurring in the decision, Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected the idea that the Necessary and Proper Clause could prevent Congress from mandating the court martial of civilians in all cases. He opposed what he termed a “recourse to the literal words” of the Constitution. Merely to hold that Mrs. Covert could not stand trial before a military tribunal since she was not a member of the armed forces signified too narrow a review.
In his opinion, that determination required the Court to assess the Constitution in its entirety and not simply the single provision granting Congress the power to regulate the nation’s land and naval forces. He advocated a balancing test that would require a court to weigh:
all the factors involved…in order to decide whether [military dependents] are so closely related to what Congress may allowably deem essential for the effective…regulation of the land and naval forces that they may be subjected to court-martial jurisdiction in…capital cases, when the consequence is loss of [their constitutional] protections.
Also concurring in the judgment, Justice John Marshall Harlan II essentially agreed with Frankfurter. Accordingly, he saw the determination as “analogous to issues of due process.” Having first determined that military dependents overseas bear a rational connection to the armed forces such that they could be validly subjected to court martial, he then asserted that the analysis turned on a question of what process was due a military dependent under the “particular circumstances of a particular case.”
While capital cases such as this one certainly necessitated a full Article III trial, most petty offenses committed by military dependents almost certainly would not. He thus advocated a case-by-case approach, rejecting the sweeping conclusion set forth by the plurality. Since Harlan had originally voted with the majority in the initial decision of this case, his concurrence on rehearing was narrow but significant. Perhaps as a consequence of his earlier vote in the previous term, his opinion on rehearing was considerably less at odds with the arguments set forth in the dissent written by Justice Tom C. Clark and joined by Justice Harold Burton.
In that staunch dissent, Clark gave substantial weight to historical practice. He asserted that the “military has always exercised jurisdiction by court-martial over civilians accompanying armies in time of war,” and that for explicit reasons of policy concerning military morale and discipline, none of the Court’s relevant precedents had ever questioned that authority.
He pointed out several troublesome and practical consequences of the Court’s holding. Not least among these were the vast distances between the United States and its various military instillations around the world. By setting forth an overly broad standard, the plurality, argued Clark, had opened the door to a myriad of petty offenses to be tried in the federal court system, thus incurring needless cost, delay, and disruption.
The court initially ruled against Mrs. Covert, but changed its mind and issued a new decision in her favor after her lawyer, Frederick Bernays Wiener, famously made a successful petition for rehearing. This is the only time the Supreme Court, without a relevant change in its membership, has ever changed its mind as the result of a petition for rehearing.
Next Foreign Policy Case: Goldwater v. Carter (1979)
Previous Foreign Policy Case: Ex Parte Quirin (1942)
Next Case: Jencks v. United States (1957)
Previous Case: Watkins v. United States (1957)