Burns v. Wilson, No. 422

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtMr. Chief Justice VINSON announced the judgment of the Court in an opinion in which Mr. Justice REED; JACKSON; MINTON; FRANKFURTER.; DOUGLAS
Citation73 S.Ct. 1045,97 L.Ed. 1508,346 U.S. 137
Decision Date15 June 1953
Docket NumberNo. 422
PartiesBURNS et al. v. WILSON, Secretary of Defense et al

346 U.S. 137
73 S.Ct. 1045
97 L.Ed. 1508
BURNS et al.

v.

WILSON, Secretary of Defense et al.

No. 422.
Argued Feb. 5, 1953.
June 15, 1953.

Messrs. Robert L. Carter, New York City, Frank D. Reeves, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Walter J.

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Cummings, Sol. Gen., Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice VINSON announced the judgment of the Court in an opinion in which Mr. Justice REED, Mr. Justice BURTON and Mr. Justice CLARK join.

Tried separately by Army courts-martial on the Island of Guam, petitioners were found guilty of murder and rape and sentenced to death. The sentences were confirmed by the President, and petitioners exhausted all remedies available to them under the Articles of War for review of their convictions by the military tribunals. They then filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

In these applications petitioners alleged that they had been denied due process of law in the proceedings which led to their conviction by the courts-martial. They charged that they had been subjected to illegal detention; that coerced confessions had been extorted from them; that they had been denied counsel of their choice and denied effective representation; that the military authorities on Guam had suppressed evidence favorable to them, procured perjured testimony against them and otherwise interfered with the preparation of their defenses. Finally, petitioners charged that their trials were conducted in an atmosphere of terror and vengeance, conducive to mob violence instead of fair play.

The District Court dismissed the applications without hearing evidence, and without further review, after satisfying itself that the courts-martial which tried petitioners had jurisdiction over their persons at the time of the trial and jurisdiction over the crimes with which they were charged as well as jurisdiction to impose the sentences

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which petitioners received. Dennis v. Lovett, 104 F.Supp. 310. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's judgment, after expanding the scope of review by giving petitioners' allegations full consideration on their merits, reviewing in detail the mass of evidence to be found in the transcripts of the trial and other proceedings before the military court. Burns v. Lovett, 91 U.S.App.D.C. 208, 202 F.2d 335.

We granted certiorari, 344 U.S. 903, 73 S.Ct. 284. Petitioners' allegations are serious, and, as reflected by the divergent bases for decision in the two courts below, the case poses important problems concerning the proper administration of the power of a civil court to review the judgment of a court-martial in a habeas corpus proceeding.

In this case, we are dealing with habeas corpus applicants who assert—rightly or wrongly—that they have been imprisoned and sentenced to death as a result of proceedings which denied them basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The federal civil courts have jurisdiction over such applications. By statute, Congress has charged them with the exercise of that power.1 Accordingly, our initial concern is not whether the District Court has any power at all to consider petitioners' applications; rather our concern is with the manner in which the Court should proceed to exercise its power.

The statute which vests federal courts with jurisdiction over applications for habeas corpus from persons confined by the military courts is the same statute which vests them with jurisdiction over the applications of persons confined by the civil courts. But in military habeas corpus the inquiry, the scope of matters open for review, has always been more narrow than in civil cases. Hiatt v. Brown, 1950, 339 U.S. 103, 70 S.Ct. 495, 94 L.Ed. 691. Thus the law which governs a civil court in the exercise of its jurisdiction over military habeas corpus applications cannot simply be

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assimilated to the law which governs the exercise of that power in other instances. It is sui generis; it must be so, because of the peculiar relationship between the civil and military law.

Military law, like state law, is a jurisprudence which exists separate and apart from the law which governs in our federal judicial establishment.2 This Court has played no role in its development; we have exerted no supervisory power over the courts which enforce it; the rights of men in the armed forces must perforce be conditioned to meet certain overriding demands of discipline and duty, and the civil courts are not the agencies which must determine the precise balance to be struck in this adjustment.3 The Framers expressly entrusted that task to Congress.

Indeed, Congress has taken great care both to define the rights of those subject to military law, and provide a complete system of review within the military system to secure those rights. Only recently the Articles of War were completely revised, and thereafter, in conformity with its purpose to integrate the armed services, Congress established a Uniform Code of Military Justice applicable to all members of the military establishment.4 These enactments were prompted by a desire to meet objections and criticisms lodged against court-martial procedures in the aftermath of World War II. Nor was

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this a patchwork effort to plug loopholes in the old system of military justice. The revised Articles and the new Code are the result of painstaking study; they reflect an effort to reform and modernize the system—from top to bottom.5

Rigorous provisions guarantee a trial as free as possible from command influence, the right to prompt arraignment, the right to counsel of the accused's own choosing, and the right to secure witnesses and prepare an adequate defense.6 The revised Articles, and their successor—the new Code—also establish a hierarchy within the military establishment to review the convictions of courts-martial, to ferret out irregularities in the trial, and to enforce the procedural safeguards which Congress determined to guarantee to those in the Nation's armed services.7 And finally Congress has provided a special post-conviction remedy within the military establishment, apart from ordinary appellate review, whereby one convicted by a court-martial, may attack collaterally the judgment under which he stands convicted.8

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The military courts, like the state courts, have the same responsibilities as do the federal courts to protect a person from a violation of his constitutional rights. In military habeas corpus cases, even more than in state hebeas corpus cases, it would be in disregard of the statutory scheme if the federal civil courts failed to take account of the prior proceedings—of the fair determinations of the military tribunals after all military remedies have been exhausted. Congress has provided that these determinations are 'final' and 'binding' upon all courts.9 We have held before that this does not displace the civil courts' jurisdiction over an application for habeas corpus from the military prisoner. Gusik v. Schilder, 1950, 340 U.S. 128, 71 S.Ct. 149, 95 L.Ed. 146. But these provisions do mean that when a military decision has dealt fully and fairly with an allegation raised in that application, it is not open to a federal civil court to grant the writ simply to re-evaluate the evidence. Whelchel v. McDonald, 1950, 340 U.S. 122, 71 S.Ct. 146, 95 L.Ed. 141.

We turn, then, to this case.

Petitioners' applications, as has been noted, set forth serious charges—allegations which, in their cumulative effect, were sufficient to depict fundamental unfairness in the process whereby their guilt was determined and their death sentences rendered. Had the military courts manifestly refused to consider those claims, the District Court was empowered to review them de novo. For the constitutional guarantee of due process is meaningful enough, and sufficiently adaptable, to protect soldiers as well as civilians—from the crude injustices of a trial so conducted that it becomes bent on fixing guilt by dispending with rudimentary fairness rather than finding

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truth through adherence to those basic guarantees which have long been recognized and honored by the military courts as well as the civil courts.

Petitioners asserted: they had been arrested and confined incommunicado by officers of the military government of Guam; they were mistreated and subjected to continuous questioning without being informed of their rights; petitioner Dennis finally confessed, after police officers confronted him with the confession of Calvin Dennis—an alleged accomplice in the crime; after a period of about three weeks of this confinement, the petitioners were turned over to the Air Force; the military authorities 'planted' real evidence—the victim's smock with hairs from petitioners' body attached—in a truck which petitioners had driven on the night of the crime; they further sought to 'contrive' a conviction by coercing various witnesses to testify against petitioners; both petitioners were denied the benefit of counsel until a short while before trial, and petitioner Dennis was denied representation of his choice when counsel he sought was removed from the case by the commanding officer of his unit; the trial was conducted in an atmosphere of 'hysteria' because the crime had been particularly brutal and the authorities had 'created' a demand for vengeance; the 'coerced' confessions were admitted at the trial and so was the incriminating confession of Calvin Dennis—which had been procured by threats and deceit.10

Answering the habeas corpus applications, respondents denied that there had been any violation of petitioners'

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rights and attached to their answer copies of the record of each trial, the review of the Staff Judge Advocate, the decision of the Board of Review in the office of the Judge Advocate General, the decision (after briefs and oral argument) of the...

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489 practice notes
  • Harris v. United States, No. 09-421C
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • November 21, 2011
    ...military have [sic] given fair consideration to each of these claims." Bowling v. United States, 713 F.2d at 1561 (citing Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 144, reh'g denied (1953)). The Federal Circuit continued:Our own precedents hold that questions of fact resolved by military courts cannot......
  • Jarita Mesa Livestock Grazing Ass'n v. U.S. Forest Serv., No. CIV 12-0069 JB/KBM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • January 24, 2013
    ...be conditioned to meet certain overriding demands of discipline and duty.'" Chappell v. Wallace, 462 U.S. at 300 (quoting Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 140 (1953)(plurality opinion)).Centuries of experience has developed a hierarchical structure of discipline and obedience to command, uniq......
  • Middendorf, Ii v. Henry Henry v. Middendorf, Ii, Nos. 74-175
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 24, 1976
    ...and naval forces, U.S.Const., Art. I, § 8, that counsel should not be provided in summary courts-martial. As we held in Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 140, 73 S.Ct. 1045, 1048, 97 L.Ed. 1508, 1514 (1953): "(T)he rights of men in the armed forces must perforce be conditioned to meet certain ......
  • Rumsfeld v. Padilla, No. 03-1027.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 28, 2004
    ...Quarles, 350 U. S. 11 (1955) (court-martial convict detained in Korea named Secretary of the Air Force as respondent); Burns v. Wilson, 346 U. S. 137 (1953) (courts-martial convicts detained in Guam named Secretary of Defense as 10. For other landmark cases addressing the meaning of "in cus......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
484 cases
  • Harris v. United States, No. 09-421C
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • November 21, 2011
    ...military have [sic] given fair consideration to each of these claims." Bowling v. United States, 713 F.2d at 1561 (citing Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 144, reh'g denied (1953)). The Federal Circuit continued:Our own precedents hold that questions of fact resolved by military courts cannot......
  • Jarita Mesa Livestock Grazing Ass'n v. U.S. Forest Serv., No. CIV 12-0069 JB/KBM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • January 24, 2013
    ...be conditioned to meet certain overriding demands of discipline and duty.'" Chappell v. Wallace, 462 U.S. at 300 (quoting Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 140 (1953)(plurality opinion)).Centuries of experience has developed a hierarchical structure of discipline and obedience to command, uniq......
  • Middendorf, Ii v. Henry Henry v. Middendorf, Ii, Nos. 74-175
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 24, 1976
    ...and naval forces, U.S.Const., Art. I, § 8, that counsel should not be provided in summary courts-martial. As we held in Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 140, 73 S.Ct. 1045, 1048, 97 L.Ed. 1508, 1514 (1953): "(T)he rights of men in the armed forces must perforce be conditioned to meet certain ......
  • Rumsfeld v. Padilla, No. 03-1027.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 28, 2004
    ...Quarles, 350 U. S. 11 (1955) (court-martial convict detained in Korea named Secretary of the Air Force as respondent); Burns v. Wilson, 346 U. S. 137 (1953) (courts-martial convicts detained in Guam named Secretary of Defense as 10. For other landmark cases addressing the meaning of "in cus......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
2 books & journal articles
  • Student Note Unequal Justice: Why Congress Should Expand the Supreme Court’s Jurisdiction to Review the Courts-martial System
    • United States
    • Journal of National Security Law & Policy Nbr. 11-3, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...this deferential standard of habeas review. 104. See Fidell, Fissell & Cave, supra note 7, at 10. 105. See, e.g., Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137, 73 (1953) (plurality opinion) (habeas corpus available in Article III courts); Schlesinger v. Councilman, 420 U.S. 738, 751 (1975) (collateral rev......
  • Front and Center: Sexual Violence in U.S. Military Law
    • United States
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    • March 1, 2009
    ...over retirees in the case of a long-retiredadmiralaccused of sodomyfor his sexual relationshipwith young sailors).98. Burns v. Wilson, 346 U.S. 137 (1953).ELIZABETH L. HILLMAN 128 POLITICS & SOCIETY99. Madsen v. Kinsella, 343 U.S. 341 (1952) (involvinga domestic violence pros-ecution); Kins......

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