Senate subpanel backs military justice overhaul

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY.)
Greg Nash

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has successfully included her proposal to overhaul the military justice system in this year’s annual defense policy bill.

In a 5-1 vote Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee, which Gillibrand chairs, voted to add her proposal as an amendment to its portion of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, voted against the amendment.

The amendment must still survive the full committee’s consideration of the NDAA, which is scheduled to start Wednesday, as well as Senate floor votes and negotiations with the House, before becoming law.

But Tuesday’s move marks a win for Gillibrand after months of unsuccessfully trying to get a vote on her proposal, as well as nearly a decade of her pushing for the reforms.

Gillibrand’s bill, an effort to tackle the pervasive issue of sexual assault in the military, would remove the decision to prosecute most major crimes from the chain of command and give it to independent prosecutors. That includes sexual assault, but also other serious crimes such as murder.

Earlier this year, Gillibrand for the first time secured enough support for her bill to overcome a Senate filibuster. But as she pushed for a Senate floor vote, she continued to clash with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) over the proposal.

Reed supports a narrower recommendation from the Independent Review Commission empaneled by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to propose new ways to stamp out sexual assault in the military.

The commission recommended taking just sex crimes out of the chain of command. Reed has previously said he’d include the commission’s recommendation in his draft of the NDAA.

On Tuesday, Gillibrand acknowledged Reed is the “first chairman of this committee to support at least moving sexual assault and related crimes from the chain of command.”

“That is an important piece of the puzzle, but we must resist the urge to isolate sex crimes and create a separate but unequal system of justice within the military for survivors,” she continued.

“The current system, which asks commanders who are not trained lawyers to make prosecutorial decisions in complex cases in which they often know both the accused and the victim, can see them unfairly place their thumbs on the scale of justice when it carries serious life altering consequences for the accused,” Gillibrand added.

Tillis said he opposed the amendment because he believes the issue should be handled by the full committee, not the subcommittee, but still held that “we have to make progress on military sexual assault.”

The full committee is still likely to debate changes to Gillibrand’s amendment when it meets Wednesday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who supports Gillibrand’s proposal, suggested the implementation period will be a point of contention, saying there is talk of having it take four years.

The Independent Review Commission recommended its change just for sex crimes take effect in 2023.

Gillibrand’s amendment would take effect after 180 days.

“We owe this to our service members to get this done,” Warren said. “If we had listened to Sen. Gillibrand, this would have been done years ago. Now, we are out of time, we are out of patience, and it is critical, from my point of view, that we move, we move surely, and we move quickly to make change.”

Tags Elizabeth Warren Jack Reed Kirsten Gillibrand Lloyd Austin military justice reform military sexual assault Thom Tillis

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