While I believe Congress should pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, there’s a far more easily implemented change being urged on the President that should meet little resistance. But even it is considered “radical” in some military circles. Recently, a Navy Times article focused on proposed changes to Article 32 hearings, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice operate like preliminary hearings in civilian systems. The “32,” as JAGs typically refer to it, is a less formal hearing where evidence is presented to a neutral investigating officer. That officer then makes a recommendation about the case to the Convening Authority, that is, a commander (usually a general officer) who then makes the final decision as to whether the case is “referred” for court martial.
The changes- implementable by the President- are being proposed specifically for the enhanced protection of complainants in sexual assault cases; the need for them became apparent to reformers particularly after the exhausting, multi-day examination of a Naval Academy midshipman involved in a rape case against three classmates late this summer. The changes are sorely needed, in least in terms of how Article 32 hearings often play out in sexual violence cases, and they are eminently reasonable.
Yet the language used in the article is perhaps a measure of how concerning any change to the military justice system is to insiders. The reporter describes the proposal as a “major reform” and a “radical overhaul” of the process. It is neither.
The officer who presides over the Article 32 hearing listens to evidence, prepares a summary of the testimony, and gives recommendations for disposition to the Convening Authority. At present, there is no requirement that the investigating officer in an Article 32 hearing be a military judge. Or a JAG. Or someone with any legal training at all. The I.O. can be simply another officer uninvolved with the case, meaning a company commander in an artillery brigade, a signal corps officer, or one of any other specialty.
For many UCMJ offenses, this is not a matter of concern. The idea of the Article 32 hearing is to allow for a neutral party in the officer corps to consider the matter before a commander at a much higher level considers whether to convene a court martial around it. That officer doesn’t have to be legally trained, in many cases, to competently consider facts and listen to witnesses.
But sexual assault cases are unique and difficult to adjudicate fairly. This is particularly true when they involve (as they almost always do) circumstances like parties known to each other, alcohol consumption, or counter-intuitive behavior like delayed reporting or post-assault communication. Aggressive defense attorneys, bound by ethics to defend their clients zealously, can and do sometimes take advantage of both the relative informal setting and legal inexperience of the I.O. to ask questions of complainants that would not be permissible in a court martial.
In the extreme, this can amount to a strategy of harassment in hopes of improperly discouraging a victim from continuing with a prosecution. Certainly not all defense attorneys plan this kind of legal attack, but without an adjudicator that is familiar with the limits of the law, aggressive and improper questioning can go unchecked even when prosecutors object. I.O.s can seek legal assistance during an investigation, but they don’t have to. Further, defense attorneys may actually outrank both the prosecutor and the I.O, adding a further complicating dynamic. Senator Boxer and co-sponsors (Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Speier) are asking the President to formalize the Article 32 process so it mirrors more closely preliminary hearings in Federal courts. This is not too much to ask.
I’ve been told by JAG friends in other services that military judges are regularly utilized to oversee Article 32 hearings. My observation of the Army process though, was much different. I personally never saw a military judge assigned to an Article 32 hearing, and knew of only one or two cases when a JAG presided over one.
Military-wide, the process should be tightened to guarantee that justice for both parties is best approached, and in exactly the way that American criminal procedure provides: By guaranteeing that legally trained professionals who know the rules will also enforce them.