Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Senate Blocks Shift in Military Authority; Instead, McCaskill- Backed Bill on Sex Assault Cases Advances

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Senate Blocks Shift in Military Authority; Instead, McCaskill- Backed Bill on Sex Assault Cases Advances

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON * The Senate blocked on Thursday a bill that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to prosecute or prevent charges for alleged rapes and other serious offenses, capping an emotional, nearly yearlong fight over how to curb sexual assault in the ranks.

The vote was 55-45, short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The Pentagon's leadership vigorously opposed the measure, arguing that officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead.

So did Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said more cases were going to trial over the objections of prosecutors as commanders were deciding to press ahead with charges.

"We can't let the commanders walk away," McCaskill, a former prosecutor, said.

After blocking Gillibrand's bill, the Senate moved toward overwhelming passage of a measure sponsored by McCaskill and two Republican senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. That bill would eliminate the "good soldier defense" in cases unless it is directly connected to the crime. And it would allow sexual assault victims to challenge their discharges or separation from service.

The bill also calls for a civilian service secretary review if a prosecutor and commander disagree over whether to litigate a case.

The Senate voted 100-0 to move ahead on that bill. A vote on passage is scheduled for Monday.

Proponents of Gillibrand's proposal had insisted that far- reaching changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice were necessary to curb a scourge of rapes and sexual assaults. Under Gillibrand's bill, the decision to take serious crimes to courts- martial would be given to military trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and would operate out of a newly established office independent of the chain of command.

Gillibrand's effort bitterly divided the Senate in a battle that smashed conventional lines on gender and political party.

Conservative Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, both Republicans, backed her effort, while the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., opposed the measure.

Although the vote sent the bill back to the Senate calendar, it was unlikely to be the final word. …

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