Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 (1957)
Commentary by Jon Roland
It is a fundamental principle of law that an agent cannot acquire additional
powers from his principal by entering into an agreement with the agent of
another principal. He may make agreements, if he has the authority to make any
agreements at all, only to exercise powers already delegated to him. Officials
of the U.S. government are agents of the people under the terms of the
Constitution, which defines and limits the powers that they may exercise, and
those limits apply not only within the territorial boundaries of the United
States, but everywhere and over all persons, regardless of whether they are
citizens or not.
The correct opinion in this case is that of Black. The concurring opinions
of Frankfurter and Harlan are erroneous in that they base their position on the
offense being capital. Clark, in dissent, is correct in saying the capital
nature of the charge is irrelevant, but incorrect in saying that treaties may
extend U.S. criminal jurisdiction in the way he suggests, to other than U.S.
military personnel, on territory that is not embassy territory but merely
foreign territory under temporary U.S. control under the terms of a status of
forces agreement. He would, however, have been correct if the territory had
been that of a U.S. embassy or equivalent diplomatic facility, and the offense
had been prosecuted under civilian criminal statutes authorized by the
"laws of nations" clause.
The logic is very clear. Congress may acquire more power only by amendment of the Constitution, and treaties are not among the alternatives in Art. V for such amendment. However, this is in conflict with Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920), and in dictum this decision did not reject the error made in that case:
There is nothing in Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 , which is contrary to the position taken here. There the Court carefully noted that the treaty involved was not inconsistent with any specific provision of the Constitution. The Court was concerned with the Tenth Amendment which reserves to the States or the people all power not delegated to the National Government. To the extent that the United States can validly make treaties, the people and the States have delegated their power to the National
Government and the Tenth Amendment is no barrier.
The people and the states delegated no such power, and no evidence was offered that they did. We can be sure that if they thought the Treaty Clause were to be interpreted to evade the limitations of powers in the Constitution, they would never have ratified the Constitution.
This brings up the subject of the Logic of Judges.
For more on this see also
Conflict of Criminal Laws, Edward S.
Stimson (1936) — Jurisdiction for a criminal offense is limited to the
territory where the offender is when the offense is committed, not where the
Rights of foreigners in the "war on
terrorism" — Article: November 26, 2001
The meaning of "offenses against the laws