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Toth v. Quarles

A Gap In Jurisdiction

When it was argued on 8 and 9 February 1955, only eight members of the Court heard the Toth case because of Justice Robert Jackson's death. The case was re-argued on 13 October after Justice Harlan was sworn in as Jackson's replacement. With three dissents, the Court ruled in Toth's favor on 7 November.

The Court concerned itself with Bang Soon Kil's murder only as a matter of fact and its chronology relative to the date of Toth's discharge. The Court was more concerned with the manner in which the military justice code assumed powers normally reserved, in civilian life, for the judiciary branch of government, not Congress, which had signed the military rules into law.

The Court found that Toth's relationship with the military was completely over at the time of his arrest. The majority could find nothing in the Constitution giving the military jurisdiction over civilians, despite the government's contention that Article 1 gave the military the right to regulate itself. The Court determined that such rules only applied to persons still actually in military service.

In his opinion, written for the majority, Justice Black noted that traditional constitutional safeguards like the right to trial by jury and independent appellate judges did not exist in the military justice system. Because Toth, as a civilian, was entitled to such protections, he could not be properly tried by the military. Justice Black also noted that this situation was not confined to the Toth case. To allow this prosecution to go forward would place millions of other veterans within the reach of military courts after their return to civilian life. The Court was, however, amenable to the idea that Congress could give federal courts the power to pursue criminal accusations against ex-service personnel who had returned to civilian life.

Justices Reed, Burton, and Minton disagreed with the majority position. In an opinion written by Justice Reed, the dissenters felt that military courts were capable of holding fair trials, despite differences from the civilian justice system. Making disciplinary rules was entirely within Congress's power to regulate the armed forces, agreed the dissenters, who felt that the Court should not interfere. Justice Minton added that he did not consider Toth to be a full-fledged civilian at the time of his arrest, since Congress, through the military code, retained jurisdiction over Toth for a crime committed while he was still on active duty.

No one was ever seriously punished for the murder of Bang Soon Kil. Air Force Secretary Harold E. Talbott reduced the sentences of the two men convicted of the crime. George Schreiber, who had ordered the killing, was dismissed from the service after serving 20 months of his five-year sentence. Thomas Kinder, who had pulled the trigger, was allowed to return to active Air Force duty after Secretary Talbot suspended his dishonorable discharge. Robert Toth, who insisted he had not been present when the killing took place, was not tried, as a result of the Supreme Court's decision.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Toth v. Quarles - A Death In Korea, A Gap In Jurisdiction