Humphrey v. Smith/Opinion of the Court

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Humphrey v. Smith
Opinion of the Court by Hugo Black
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 695

Humphrey  v.  Smith

 Argued: March 30, 1949. --- Decided: April 25, 1949

The respondent, Bernard W. Smith, an American soldier, was convicted by an Army court-martial for rape of one woman and assault with intent to rape another in violation of the 92d and 93d Articles of War. 10 U.S.C. §§ 1564 and 1565, 10 U.S.C.A. §§ 1564, 1565. His punishment was dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and imprisonment for life. Army reviewing authorities approved the conviction and sentence, but the President reduced the punishment to sixteen years' imprisonment. This habeas corpus proceeding was brought in a District Court challenging the validity of the conviction. The District Court denied relief. 72 F.Supp. 935. The Court of Appeals reversed, ordering respondent's discharge. 170 F.2d 61. We granted certiorari because the petition raises questions concerning important phases of court-martial statutory powers and the scope of judicial review of court-martial convictions.

We may at once dispose of the concention that the respondent should not have been convicted on the evidence offered. That evidence was in sharp dispute. But our authority in habeas corpus proceedings to review court-martial judgments does not permit us to pass on the guilt or innocence of persons convicted by courts-martial. [1]

It is contended that the court-martial was without jurisdiction to try respondent. If so the court-martial exceeded its lawful authority and can be invalidated despite the limited powers of a court in habeas corpus proceedings. [2] The soundness of this contention depends upon an interpretation of the 70th Article of War, the pertinent part of which is set out below. [3] It provides the manner in which pre-trial investigations shall be made preliminary to trials of soldiers before general courts-martial. A part of the language is that 'No charge will be referred to a general court martial for trial until after a thorough and impartial investigation thereof shall have been made.' The contention is that this requirement is jurisdictional in nature; that the kind of pre-trial investigation prescribed is an indispensable prerequisite to exercise of general court-martial jurisdiction; and that absent such prior investigation a judgment of conviction is wholly void.

Here there was an investigatio. The claim is that it was neither 'thorough' nor 'impartial' as the 70th Article requires. The Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, so held, and its reversal was rested on that finding. There was no finding that there was unfairness in the court-martial trial itself.

We do not think that the pre-trial investigation procedure required by Article 70 can properly be construed as an indispensable prerequisite to exercise of Army general court-martial jurisdiction. The Article does serve important functions in the administration of court-martial procedures and does provide safeguards to an accused. Its language is clearly such that a defendant could object to trial in the absence of the required investigation. In that event the court-martial could itself postpone trial pending the investigation. And the military reviewing authorities could consider the same contention, reversing a court-martial conviction where failure to comply with Article 70 has substantially injured an accused. [4] But we are not persuaded that Congress intended to make otherwise valid court-martial judgments wholly void because pre-trial investigations fall short of the standards prescribed by Article 70. That Congress has not required analogous pre-trial procedure for Navy courts-martial is an indication that the investigatory plan was not intended to be exalted to the jurisdictional level.

Nothing in the legislative history of the Article supports the contention that Congress intended that a conviction after a fair trial should be nullified because of the manner in which an investigation was conducted prior to the filing of charges. Its original purposes were to insure adequate preparation of cases, to guard against hasty, ill-considered charges, to save innocent persons from the stigma of unfounded charg s, and to prevent trivial cases from going before general courts-martial. War Department, Military Justice During the War, 63 (1919). All of these purposes relate solely to actions required in advance of formal charges or trial. All the purposes can be fully accomplished without subjecting court-martial convictions to judicial invalidation where pre-trial investigations have not been made.

Shortly after enactment of Article 70 in 1920 the Judge Advocate General of the Army did hold that where there had been no pre-trial investigation, court-martial proceedings were void ab initio. [5] But this holding has been expressly repudiated in later holdings of the Judge Advocate. [6] This later interpretation has been that the pre-trial requirements of Article 70 are directory, not mandatory, and in no way affect the jurisdiction of a court-martial. The War Department's interpretation was pointedly called to the attention of Congress in 1947 after which Congress amended Article 70 but left unchanged the language here under consideration. [7]

We hold that a failure to conduct pre-trial investigations as required by Article 70 does not deprive a general court-martial of jurisdiction so as to empower courts in habeas corpus proceedings to invalidate court-martial judgments. It is contended that this interpretation of Article 70 renders it meaningless, practically making it a dead letter. This contention must rest on the premise that the Army will comply with the 70th Article of War only if courts in habeas corpus proceedings can invalidate any court-martial conviction which does not follow an Article 70 pre-trial procedure. We cannot assume that judicial coercion is essential to compel the Army to obey this Article of War. It was the Army itself that initiated the pre-trial investigation procedure and recommended congressional enactment of Article 70. [8] A reasonable assumption is that the Army will require compliance with the Article 70 investigatory procedure to the end that Army work shall not be unnecessarily impeded and that Army personnel shall not be wronged as the result of unfounded and frivolous court-martial charges and trials. [9]

This court-martial conviction resulting from a trial fairly conducted cannot be invalidated by a judicial finding that the pre-trial investigation was not carried on in the manner prescribed by the 70th Article of War. [10]


Mr. Justice MURPHY, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS and Mr. Justice RUTTLEDGE concur, dissenting.


  1. Carter v. McClaughry, 183 U.S. 365, 381, 22 S.Ct. 181, 46 L.Ed. 236; and see In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, 8-9, 66 S.Ct. 340, 90 L.Ed. 499, and cases cited.
  2. United States v. Cooke, 336 U.S. 210, 69 S.Ct. 530; Collins v. McDonald, 258 U.S. 416, 418, 42 S.Ct. 326, 66 L.Ed. 692; see In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, 8-9, 66 S.Ct. 340, 90 L.Ed. 499.
  3. 'No charge will be referred to a general court martial for trial until after a thorough and impartial investigation thereof shall have been made. This investigation will include inquiries as to the truth of the matter set forth in said charges, form of charges, and what disposition of the case should be made in the interest of justice and discipline. At such investigation full opportunity shall be given to the accused to cross-examine witnesses against him if they are available and to present anything he may desire in his own behalf either in defense or mitigation, and the investigating officer shall examine available witnesses requested by the accused. If the charges are forwarded after such investigation, they shall be accompanied by a statement of the substance of the testimony taken on both sides.' 41 Stat. 759, 802, as amended 50 Stat. 724, 10 U.S.C. § 1542, 10 U.S.C.A. § 1542. See also Pub. L. No. 759, 80th Cong., 2d Sess. §§ 222, 231, 244, June 24, 1948, 10 U.S.C.A. §§ 1472, 1517, 1542.
  4. Military reviewing authorities do not revise court-martial convictions for failure to follow pre-trial procedure unless it appears to them that such failure has injuriously affected the substantial rights of the accused. CM 229477, Floyd, 17 B.R. 149, 153-156 (1943). The Assistant Judge Advocate General testifying before the Committee on Armed Services stated: 'If it appeared in the Office of the Judge Advocate General that the man had been deprived of any substantial right, such as the presentation of testimony in his own behalf, or something of that kind, it would be possible for us to say that the error injuriously affected the rights of the accused and that the sentence should therefore be vacated. The case of real injury would be rare. Ordinarily guilt or innocence is and should be determined at the trial and not by what occurred prior to the trial.' Hearings before subcommittee No. 11, Legal, of House Committee on Armed Services on H.R. 2575, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. 2059-2060 (1947).
  5. CM 161728, Clark. See also to the same effect CM 182225, Keller; CM 183183, Claybaugh.
  6. See Floyd, supra, n. 4; CMETO 4570, Hawkins, 13 B.R. (ETO) 57, 71-75 (1945); CM 323486, Ruckman, 72 B.R. 267, 272-274 (1947).
  7. Pub.L. No. 759, 80th Cong., 2d Sess., §§ 222, 231, 244, June 24, 1948. In congressional committee hearings War Department representatives were subjected to considerable questioning as to whether pre-trial requirements should be made jurisdictional prerequisites. One of many statements supporting the War Department's view was that of Undersecretary of War Royall, who testified:
  8. War Department, Military Justice During the War, 63 (1919); H.R.Rep. No. 940, 66th Cong., 2d Sess. 2 (1920).
  9. Secretary Royall in referring to the procedure told the House Committee: 'We believe very strongly in it and we will provide for it as strongly as we can, without making it grounds for a technical appeal.' Hearings before subcommittee No. 11, Legal, of House Committee on Armed Services on H R. 2575, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. 2152 (1947).
  10. District Courts and Courts of Appeal have not been in agreement on the question. Henry v. Hodges, D.C., 76 F.Supp. 968, 970-974; Anthony v. Hunter, D.C., 71 F.Supp. 823, 830-831; Hicks v. Hiatt, D.C., 64 F.Supp. 238, 242; Waite v. Overlade, 7 Cir., 164 F.2d 722, 723-724; De War v. Hunter, 10 Cir., 170 F.2d 993, 995-997.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).