Pentagon Orders Major Review of Military Justice System

Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 11:16 AM

By Drew MacKenzie

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The Defense Department has announced a full-scale review of the military justice system after an outcry from Congress over the handling of sexual assault cases in the armed forces.

"It’s been over 30 years since the military code of justice was reviewed. It’s simply time," Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman told Stars and Stripes. "Sexual assault will certainly be part of the compendium of issues that will be looked at, but it’s by no means the sole issue."

The review panel will be headed by Andrew Effron, the newly retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and will include lawyers from all the military services.

Judge David Sentelle, a prominent conservative on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Judith Miller, a former Defense Department general counsel under President Bill Clinton, will serve as advisers.

Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was quick to attack the planned review, saying that it would take 18 months to come up with conclusions to the growing number of sex attacks in the military.

"We can do review after review after review, and I have no doubt they are all well-intentioned," she said. "But according to the DOD’s latest available numbers, 18 months is another estimated 39,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact that will occur."

The issue of sexual assault in the military came under the microscope in Washington after a 50 percent increase in such crimes last year, especially the powers commanding officers have in overturning convictions of troops in their unit, Stars and Stripes reported.

Gillibrand introduced a bill last month to remove the chain of command from authority over cases involving major crimes, but it was defeated by a filibuster in the Senate.

However, the Victims Protection Act, aimed at curbing sexual assaults and authored by Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, passed the Senate.

The bill would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, assign victims their own independent legal counsel to protect their rights, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report such crimes. The bill must pass the House of Representatives before it becomes law.

Celia Richa, of the Futures Without Violence group, which helps victims of military assault, praised the measure, saying, "This comes at a good time. Advocates for survivors really want to see results with this."

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale University, told Stars & Stripes that although the review is the result of the controversy surrounding sex assault convictions, the scale would be much bigger.

"It will be a top-to-bottom review, which means everything is on the table," Fidell said. "I think this is part of the larger dismay that the country has been feeling about whether the system was functioning in the best way possible."

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