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Chain Of Command To Be Kept Involved In Military Sexual Assault Cases

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
File photo | Senate livestream

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill,D-Mo., arguably won her most significant victory since her 2012 re-election with Thursday’s Senate vote in favor of her approach to fighting sexual assaults in the military.

Most significantly, her approach would keep sexual assault cases within the military chain of command, although she would restrict commanders’ powers to overturn jury verdicts in sexual assault cases and bar commanders from substituting lesser charges.

The Senate first narrowly rejected a rival plan, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y, to remove sexual assault and other serious crimes from military commanders’ oversight. Instead Gillibrand would have shifted the power to refer cases for prosecution, including courts-martial, to military lawyers. While the Senate voted 55-45 on a procedural vote for Gillibrand’s approach, it was still five votes short.

The Senate then voted overwhelmingly for a narrower measure sponsored by McCaskill, which would bar the use of the “good soldier’’ defense in assault cases, unless the defendant’s character was key in connection with the alleged crime. Months ago, the Senate approved most of McCaskill’s major changes.

During Thursday’s debate, McCaskill cited the Army's estimates that Gillibrand’s approach would require hiring hundreds more military lawyers. “There is nothing harder for a victim than justice delayed,’’ McCaskill said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire and a co-sponsor of McCaskill's latest measure, said that assault victims in war zones – such as Afghanistan – would be in even more difficult positions because military lawyers were not likely to be close at hand. She asked if they would have to be “flown in.”

Gillibrand said that critics were misrepresenting what she was proposing. Her allies, including Sen. Mazie Hirano, D-Hawaii, argued that surveyed victims overwhelmingly favored Gillibrand’s plan.

Gillibrand’s efforts may have been hurt by this week’s disclosure that the Army’s top prosecutor for sexual assault cases had been suspended from his jobafter he had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman lawyer who worked for him.

Most Senate Republicans sided with McCaskill

In a statement after the vote, McCaskill sought to downplay any discord between her supporters and those backing Gillibrand.

“This debate has been about one thing — getting the policy right to best protect and empower victims and boost prosecutions of predators,” McCaskill said. “I believe we’re on the cusp of achieving that goal. The Senate has voted to strengthen even further what is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world. I’m eager to continue working closely with my colleagues…and with Sen. Gillibrand who has been instrumental in focusing the nation’s attention on addressing this critical topic — to aggressively and vigilantly implement these reforms and turn the corner in our shared battle to curb sexual assaults in the ranks.”

McCaskill had the support of several Senate Republicans, including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who had backed her proposals last fall. Blunt told reporters in a conference call Thursday, before the Senate votes, that a key factor in his decision was the broader issue of changing military culture to make sexual assault unacceptable.

“You can’t change the culture if you exclude the people in charge of that culture from being responsible for it, and part of it,’’ Blunt said.

The bill awaits final Senate approval, which is scheduled Monday. It would still need approval by the U.S. House.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.