Reid v. Covert

Facts of the Case

Following trials by court-martial, several civilians, wives of members of the United States military, were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the first district court ordered a civilian released from custody. This was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.


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?


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 a decision authored by Justice Hugo Black, the Court held that U.S. citizen civilians abroad have the right to Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment constitutional protections. The Court agreed with the petitioners, concluding that 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.While a majority of the Court agreed with the ultimate result, they did so for different reasons. 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