In light of a recently overturned guilty verdict in a sexual assault case, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called on Congress to modify the military criminal justice system, specifically this authority to overturn a court-martial.
Appropriately, an independent review panel has been established to review the issue of sexual assault in the military. Congress should withhold any changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) until the panel releases its recommendations.
Article 60 of the UCMJ gives the adjudicating officer in a military case the authority to “approve, disapprove, commute, or suspend the sentence in whole or in part and may dismiss any charge or specification by setting aside a finding of guilty.” Hagel proposes “eliminating the discretion for a convening authority to change the findings of a court-martial, except for certain minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court-martial.”
This, according to Heritage’s Cully Stimson and Steven Bucci, “could undermine the unique role given to the system’s convening authority” to ensure order and discipline in the armed forces.
The UCMJ does not and should not operate like the civilian criminal justice system. The civilian criminal justice system’s primary purpose is to protect the populace. The military justice system must do so while also supporting the unique military community and maintaining “good order and discipline within the armed forces,” explain Stimson and Bucci.
Just as there are wrongful convictions in civilian criminal courts, there are occasionally wrongful convictions in military courts. The power to overturn wrongful convictions helps to deliver justice in a swift manner that allows service members to return to duty. Stimson and Bucci continue, “Without the power granted by Article 60, a convening authority would have no choice but to force a wrongly convicted service member to endure the time and anxiety of the appeals process.”
However, transparency is an important part of any justice proceeding, which is why part of Secretary Hagel’s proposal, to require “a convening authority to explain in writing any changes made in court-martial sentences, as well as any changes in findings involving minor offenses,” should be strongly considered by Congress.
Congress should consider the unique role of the military justice system as well as the findings of the independent review panel before making hasty changes to a system that has served the military well for decades.
Genevieve Syverson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.