Reid v. Covert

Reid v. Covert

Argued May 3, 1956
Reargued February 27, 1957
Decided June 10, 1957
Full case name Reid, Superintendent, District of Columbia Jail v. Clarice Covert

354 U.S. 1 (more)

77 S. Ct. 1222; 1 L. Ed. 2d 1148; 1957 U.S. LEXIS 729
The military may not deprive American civilians of their Bill of Rights protections by trying them in a military tribunal.
Court membership
Case opinions
Plurality Black, joined by Warren, Douglas, Brennan
Concurrence Frankfurter
Concurrence Harlan
Dissent Clark, joined by Burton
Whittaker took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Art. VI

Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 (1957), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that American 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.

Although the plurality opinion stated that "this Court has regularly and uniformly recognized the supremacy of the Constitution over a treaty," the case itself was with regard to an executive agreement, not a "treaty" in the U.S. legal sense, and the agreement itself between the United States and Great Britain has never been ruled unconstitutional.


The case involved Clarice Covert, who had been convicted by a military tribunal of murdering her husband. At the time of Mrs. Covert's alleged offense, an executive agreement was in effect between the United States and United Kingdom which permitted United States' military courts to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over offenses committed in Great Britain by American servicemen or their dependents.

Opinion of the Court

The Court found: "No agreement with a foreign nation can confer power on the Congress, or on any other branch of Government, which is free from the restraints of the Constitution." The Court's core holding of the case is that U.S. Citizen civilians abroad have the right to Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment constitutional protections.

The Court found it unconstitutional to adjudge U.S. citizen civilians in military courts, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

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. The Court distinguished Reid from the Insular Cases: The "Insular Cases" can be distinguished from the present cases in that they involved the power of Congress to provide rules and regulations to govern temporarily territories with wholly dissimilar traditions and institutions.[1]

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."[1]

Justice Harlan's concurrence reaffirmed the application of Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights of dependents of armed services members.

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 has changed its mind as the result of a petition for rehearing.[2]

See also


  1. 1 2 Reid v. Covert, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, retrieved 2013-09-26
  2. Reid v. Covert, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, retrieved 2013-11-22

Further reading

External links

Works related to Reid v. Covert at Wikisource

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