Debate Club

Give Members of the Military Access to the Justice They Deserve

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called our current military justice system “broken.” And he’s right. 90 percent of the men and women who experience sexual assault in the military don’t report because they are convinced nothing will be done or that seeking justice will result in career-ending personal and professional retaliation.

The reforms created by the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act make changes that many argue are sufficient to stem the tide of military sexual assault. As a former Navy Commanding Officer, I can tell you: they won’t. The damage done by the current system runs too deep, is too flawed and leaves too much potential for injustice. Recent reforms are band-aids to the same system we have been trying to fix for nearly 23 years, since the Tailhook scandal in 1991 that rocked the public’s conscience and exposed a military culture in which sexual assault and harassment received tacit acceptance.

Our current military justice system’s central flaw is this: it positions commanders, rather than military lawyers, as legal decision-makers for nonmilitary-specific felony-level crimes.

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

Practically, what does this mean? Commanders, with perhaps as little as a week of legal training, are relied on to decide whether and how to proceed with regard to rape and other felony-equivalent charges. Is this a resource issue? Is it because the military does not have attorneys who have graduated from law schools and passed bar examinations at its disposal to address these issues in the ranks? No. Is it because, as some have suggested, commanding officers cannot maintain good order and discipline within their units without this legal decision-making power known as the “convening authority”? Again, no. Not every commander has convening authority for General Courts-Martial, the authority to hear felony cases, and those without it still maintain good order and discipline.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act makes changes to an antiquated, 18th-century structure for administering justice. It places decisions regarding nonmilitary-specific felony-level crimes in the hands of military attorneys, allowing commanders to maintain decision-making authority over military-specific crimes such as desertion or mutiny and smaller misdemeanors. The result of this change will be better justice for our service members. Professionalizing and modernizing the military justice system will not only increase survivors’ faith and confidence in objective, law-based outcomes but will also result in better due process protections for the accused.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Without Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, military justice will continue to be rooted in an archaic system, in which those with little legal training are strangely tasked with administering justice for serious crimes. It doesn’t make sense to prosecute rapes in this way — either for survivors or the accused. Further tweaks to this system, for example adding an extra layer of commander review to another commander’s decision — as proposed by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill — will not create the fundamental change necessary to ensure justice. It’s just another ineffective band-aid to a system that misdirects responsibilities, failing to simply let commanders command and lawyers lawyer.

During the nearly 23 years we’ve had to correct this problem under the current system, more waiting has only resulted in more injustice for military sexual assault survivors. Give our service members the access to justice they deserve. We need Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act. 

About Lory Manning is the Service Women’s Action Network’s senior policy fellow and served as Commanding Officer of the Naval Telecommunications Station, Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory. 

Tags
military
sexual assault
Congress

Other Arguments

#1
331 Pts
Sen. Gillibrand: The Deck Is Stacked Against Sexual Assault Victims

Yes – Sen. Gillibrand: The Deck Is Stacked Against Sexual Assault Victims

Kirsten Gillibrand is a senator from New York and serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

#2
230 Pts
The Gillibrand Bill Will Allow Assault Victims to Come Forward

Yes – The Gillibrand Bill Will Allow Assault Victims to Come Forward

Chelsea Kelly is a third year student at Yale Law School and a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

#3
218 Pts
Sexual Assault Victims Have Waited Too Long for Justice

Yes – Sexual Assault Victims Have Waited Too Long for Justice

Paula Coughlin is a retired lieutenant, helicopter pilot and U.S. Navy Member, and serves on the Board of Directors of Protect Our Defenders.

#5
169 Pts
The Military Can Handle a Change in Sexual Assault Protocol

Yes – The Military Can Handle a Change in Sexual Assault Protocol

Loree Sutton is a psychiatrist and cofounder of Threshold GlobalWorks.

#6
-106 Pts
Rep. Loretta Sanchez: Hold Commanders Accountable for Sexual Assaults

No – Rep. Loretta Sanchez: Hold Commanders Accountable for Sexual Assaults

Loretta Sanchez  is the second ranked Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and founder and cochair of the Women in the Military Caucus.

#7
-145 Pts
Removing Commanders From the Justice Process Is Too Extreme

No – Removing Commanders From the Justice Process Is Too Extreme

Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

#8
-197 Pts
Sen. McCaskill: In Curbing Sexual Assaults, the Policy Matters

No – Sen. McCaskill: In Curbing Sexual Assaults, the Policy Matters

Claire McCaskill is a former sex crimes prosecutor and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.

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