Graham sees problems in changing how military handles court-martial cases

Removing the ability for military commanders to alter verdicts in military court-martial cases is “very problematic,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill on Wednesday.

A recent Air Force case in which a convening authority tossed out a guilty sexual assault verdict has riled many lawmakers and prompted new legislation to remove the ability of commanders to dismiss verdicts.

“Immediate steps must be taken to prevent senior commanders from having the ability to unilaterally overturn the decision or a sentence by a military court,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in testimony before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee Wednesday.

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But Graham said that changing the nature of the convening authority, a commander who sets up a court martial and has the ability to reduce verdicts, would change a system that’s been a bedrock of the military's Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

“We’re talking about a universal concept in our military that the commander who has the power to order you in battle also has the power to discipline and make individual decisions for what’s best in the unit,” Graham said. “And the convening authority in the general court martial is several steps removed from the unit itself."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation this week that would remove the ability of commander to single-handedly toss out guilty verdicts.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Boxer and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen this week he had ordered a review of the case, and would consider changes to the UCMJ.

Graham said testimony heard from victims at Wednesday’s hearing on military sexual assault — the first in the Senate in nearly a decade — was troubling.

“Clearly the message we're sending to our female members of the military is that we're way too indifferent, and that your complaints were falling on deaf ears,” Graham said at the hearing.

Despite the problems, Graham also defended the military justice system on the whole, one that he has been part of as a JAG lawyer in the Air Force and Reserves.

“The military's a unique place. It's not a democracy,” Graham said. “It's a place where you're asked to do extraordinarily difficult things, and you have to count on the people to your right and to your left to be there when you need them and vice versa.”

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