Reid v. Covert

PETITIONER: Curtis Reid, Superintendent of the District of Columbia Jail
RESPONDENT: Claris Covert
LOCATION: RAF Station Brize Norton

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1955-1956)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

ARGUED: May 03, 1956
DECIDED: Jun 11, 1956
REARGUED: Feb 27, 1957
DECIDED: Jun 10, 1957

Frederick Bernays Wiener - for the appellee Covert and the respondent Kreuger at argument and reargument
J. Lee Rankin - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, at reargument for the appellant Reid and the petitioner Kinsella
Marvin E. Frankel - for the appellant Reid and the petitioner Kinsella

Facts of the case

While residing at an airbase in England as a military dependent, Mrs. Clarice Covert was tried and convicted by court-martial for the murder of her husband, a sergeant in the United States Air Force. Mrs. Covert was not a member of the armed forces. Her trial and subsequent conviction by court martial in the United States was authorized under Article 2(11) of the United States Code of Military Justice. Mrs. Covert filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court alleging that her conviction by military authorities had violated her constitutional rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The district court, holding that "a civilian is entitled to a civilian trial," granted her petition. The Government appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court.

In its initial decision of the case (351 U.S. 487), the Court held that Mrs. Covert's military trial was constitutional, that the Constitutional right to a trial by jury did not apply to American citizens tried in foreign lands. Congress, the Court held, could provide for trial by any means it saw fit so long as such means were reasonable and consistent with due process. Justice Felix Frankfurter issued a lengthy reservation, and Chief Justice Earl Warren together with Justices Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas issued a strong dissent. The Court subsequently granted a petition for rehearing.


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?

Media for Reid v. Covert

Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - February 27, 1957 (Part 1) in Reid v. Covert
Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - February 27, 1957 (Part 2) in Reid v. Covert

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - May 03, 1956 in Reid v. Covert

Earl Warren:

Number 701, Curtis Reid, Superintendent versus Clarice B. Covert and Number 713, Nina Kinsella, Warden et cetera versus Walter Krueger.

Mr. Frankel.

Marvin E. Frankel:

May it please the Court.

The important question common to both of these consolidated cases is whether Congress violated the Constitution when it provided 40 years ago and again in Article 2 (11) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, that civilians accompanying the armed forces outside the United States, where foreign courts would normally have jurisdiction, could be tried by an American courts-martial for their offenses in those foreign places where international law or international agreement permit.

The Covert case, Number 701, is here on direct appeal from the District Court for the District of Columbia where Mrs. Covert was ordered discharged on habeas corpus.

In March 1953 and for sometime theretofore, Mrs. Covert was living on an American Air Force base in England.

She had been brought to England by military service transport.

She had come to England under statute and regulations providing that dependents of armed forces personnel overseas might, in stated circumstances, come overseas to live with them.

As such a dependent living on the Air Force base, Mrs. Covert used commissary facilities, post-exchange and other military facilities, medical and so on and lived with her husband in quarters furnished by the military.

On March 10, 1953, Mrs. Covert killed her husband with an axe.

At that time, there was in effect an agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom and a British statute implementing that agreement, both of which are set out in the appendix to our brief in the Covert case beginning at page 74.

Under that agreement for the duration of the war and for such further period as the parties might agree which ultimately extended to the time as relevant in this case.

The United Kingdom agreed to relinquish its normal local jurisdiction over American person subject -- over a person subject to American military law in England.

And the United Kingdom agreed that American military tribunals might exercise in England their military jurisdiction over such persons for offenses committed in England.

In accordance with that agreement, a certificate was made by the commanding officer of the Air Force base stating that Mrs. Covert was a person subject to American military law.

The British, thereafter, refrained from taking any action with reference to this murder and Mrs. Covert was tried by court-martial.

She was convicted.

Her conviction was affirmed by a board of review in a divided vote, 2-to-1.

Thereafter, her conviction was reversed by the Court of Military Appeals, again in a divided vote on two grounds which are not important here but which might be mentioned.

One, that prosecution witnesses had misinterpreted and misapplied in Air Force manual on the question of legal insanity in giving their testimony, and two, that the law officer of the court-martial had erred in failing to instruct on mental impairment as affecting premeditation as well as the question of guilt or innocence totally.

On the reversal, the Court of Military Appeals ordered that there be a rehearing if practicable.

Thereafter, such a rehearing was ordered.

What does impractical -- impracticable mean?

Marvin E. Frankel:

Impracticable means as I understand it, Your Honor, if in the judgment of the prosecuting authorities, there is reason to hold a rehearing if it would be just to do so if the other man is warranted.

And this leads to the convening authority the power to determine whether there's a rehearing and there's no -- no issue as to that.

And meanwhile to trace the location of Mrs. Covert during this offense as to which a non-constitutional issue was raised, they can be summarized as follows.

On June -- in June, 1953, following her conviction, Mrs. Covert, following her conviction but before review in the military appellate tribunal, Mrs. Covert was flown in Air Force custody from England and confined in the Federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, West Virginia.

She remained there until after the rehearing was ordered.

When she was brought to the District of Columbia, the rehearing having been ordered to be held at Bolling Air Force Base near here.

Here, because the Air Force did not have appropriate facilities, it arranged as everybody apparently agrees was its right for her confinement in the District of Columbia jail of which the appellant Curtis Reid is superintendent.