Federal Constitution and international treaties or agreements: Case Analysis
Reid V. Covert
I. Facts of the case
Mrs. Covert was a civilian dependent on her husband, Mr. Covert, a sergeant in the United States air force who was stationed in the United Kingdom. Mrs. Covert murdered her husband in an airbase in the United Kingdom. Pursuant to an agreement between US and UK, which granted permission to martial court to take action against criminals for any offence committed in the United Kingdom by any American armed force serviceman or any of their dependent, Mrs. Covert was convicted by martial court as per article 2(11) of the Uniform State Code of Military Justice without any protection of indictment by the grand jury or right to jury trial.
Initially, the US court confirmed her conviction. She filed for a writ of habeas corpus and alleged that she was denied her constitutional right to have her charge presented to a grand jury or a right to jury trial as provided under the fifth and sixth amendments. She was sent to the US to await rehearing on her case. On rehearing, her petition was accepted (Haljan, 2013).
II. The issue
The main issue of the case is to solve the conflicting provisions of the Federal Constitution and international treaties or agreements and to know whether an American employed in the armed forces or their dependents living abroad found guilty of capital offence retain their right to jury trial as conferred under the Federal Constitution, thus rendering the trial by martial court as per article 2(11) of Uniform Code of Military Justice unenforceable.
The case involves two decisions so we have different set of rules which are given as below.
(a) Rule applicable during first decision
The first hearing on the case was based on Article 2(11) of Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provides that all Americans serving with the armed forces or their dependents living in the UK are subject to provisions of this Code. Section 118 of Uniform Code of Military Justice provide for trial by the court martial for any capital case.
(b) Rules applicable during second Decision
- Civilians found guilty of any crime are entitled to their constitutional right of protection on indictment by the grand jury as provided under the Fifth Amendment and right to jury trial as provided under the Sixth Amendment. The supremacy of the Constitution provides all rights to American citizens even if they are residing abroad.
- Any legislation, treaty or foreign agreement must comply with provisions of the Constitution. The supremacy clause does not provide that any treaty or foreign agreement or any legislation passed does not have to comply with provisions of the Constitution. If the US government enters into any agreement or treaty with the foreign government and implement any legislation which is in conflict with provisions of the Constitution, then such agreements or legislation will be invalid.
- The US government can act against its citizens residing abroad only if the specified limitations are imposed under the Constitution including Article III, section 2, 5th and 6th amendments.
- First hearing on case
The Federal Constitution provides the right to jury trial to any American before his conviction. During the hearing of the case for the first time, the interpretation given by the US government was that the Constitutional right to the jury trial is available to Americans residing within the US territorial limits and is not available for American servicemen or their dependents living abroad.
Mrs. Covert, an American citizen, was tried by the martial court for the murder of her husband in the United Kingdom. She was denied to her constitutional right because she was living outside the United States and her conviction was affirmed by the US court. The court also provided for the provision of the jury trial if Congress finds it to be reasonable.
- Second hearing of case
- Second time, the decision was based on Article 2(11) which empowers the military courts to act against offences committed by American servicemen or their dependents in the UK territory without any jury trial cannot supersede Article III, Section 2 and the sixth amendment of the Federal Constitution which grant the right to jury trial to civilians abroad. The constitutional rights extend even beyond the boundaries of the US to Americans overseas. When the US government approaches out to punish a criminal, the constitutional rights of American citizens in abroad to protect own life does not go away on the ground of being in another land. So civilians cannot be tried by the court martial.
- The supremacy clause given in Article VI of the Federal Constitution does not provide about non-compliance of provisions of the Constitution after enactment of any agreement or treaty with the foreign government.
- There was no such intention of the law makers to set up a rivalry system between civil courts and military courts, where they compete with each other to exercise their jurisdiction over the civil criminals who are dependent on someone employed in the armed force. It seems incredible if the civil criminals are tried by the martial court and denied their right to jury trial.
- The founders of the law used to accept the trial of soldiers by martial court for any offence during peace time with grudges. It will be again an annoying fact if Mrs. Covert is tried by martial court for the capital case committed during peace time.
- Moreover, whatever jurisdiction the military court acquires as a result of the application of article 2(11) of UCMJ is lost when the convicted is handed over to the custody of the United States authorities. The article 2(11) of Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) became inoperative when Mrs. Covert was sent to the US and handed over to US authorities. On the basis of above rules, the petition of Mrs. Covert for the writ of habeas corpus was accepted.
The decision on this case was given twice in the US Supreme Court. The decision given during the second time was reversed by the court itself which happened for the first time in the US history.
Mrs. Covert who was convicted by martial court for the murder of her husband on the basis of Article 2(11) of Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and was denied her constitutional right but was ultimately granted this right on the basis of the Supremacy clause of the sixth amendment which provides for compliance of all provisions of the Constitution by all treaties and foreign agreements. The Federal Constitution is a supreme source of law and no other state law, treaties or foreign agreements or legislation can supersede it.
Haljan, D. (2013). Separating Powers : International Law before National Courts. The Hague: T.M.C Asser Press.