Hayden Covington, a graduate of the San Antonio Bar Association School of Law (later St. Mary’s University School of Law), ranks among the most overworked and underappreciated attorneys in American history. During the middle part of the twentieth century, he handled as many as fifty major cases every year involving the civil liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who faced an unparalleled wave of religious persecution because of their uncommon beliefs and sometimes peculiar behavior. His indefatigable work helped usher in a new era in American constitutional law, the ‘‘rights revolution’’ that reached its apogee under the Warren Court of the 1960s.
Unleashed in a courtroom, Covington could be a whirlwind. A brief magazine profile published in 1943, marveling at his athletic delivery of oral arguments, compared him to a cyclone. After watching the frenetic Witness attorney argue several cases in the early 1940s, a Supreme Court clerk cracked that while Covington might not have talked a greater length longer than other attorneys appearing before the nation’s highest bench, he undoubtedly performed more calisthenics. Covington’s loud attire also was conspicuous: he argued one important case while sporting a vibrant green suit and a red plaid tie.
But while Covington’s demeanor in the courtroom was easy to mock, his record was one that any lawyer would envy. Between 1938 and 1955, he prevailed in more than two dozen cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, a record that prompted more than one sympathetic observer to compare him to the likes of Thurgood Marshall. Such landmark cases as Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940), Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), and West Virginia v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1942) bore his unmistakable imprimatur. His work in these cases and myriad others prompted one national magazine to call him an extraordinary precedent-breaker. Indeed, Covington was nothing short of relentless in asking the high court to scrap ossified judicial precedents and broaden judicial protections for civil liberties.
Asked to explain why he and his fellow Witnesses defended their civil liberties so zealously in the courts, Covington said that they were simply devout Christians following a precedent established in the Scriptures by the likes of the apostle Paul. The Witnesses were like the earliest Christians, Covington suggested, because they used the courts not only to secure their own freedoms but also to help ensure religious liberty for all Christians.
Covington’s star faded in the 1960s and 1970s. He clashed with the leaders of his faith and was at one point ‘‘disfellowshipped’’ (effectively excommunicated). Until his death in 1980, he also was dogged by rumors that he suffered from a drinking problem. But even as he floundered, Covington managed to briefly return to prominence as an attorney in the late 1960s by helping the boxer Muhammad Ali contest his military draft classification in court.
SHAWN FRANCIS PETERS
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited