(Jurist | Jan. 4, 2019) The cornerstone of military justice is ensuring that commanders at all levels, called convening authorities, do not influence the lawful carrying out of investigations and prosecutions of service members who violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Developed through customs of the service over two centuries and codified by Congress in the early 1950’s, the UCMJ has been a model for the rule of law ensuring America’s armed forces conduct themselves in a way that would not bring discredit to the United States or a service. It’s a system that works, ensuring all of the constitutional protections afforded American citizens are available to its fighting forces, with some exceptions.
Military justice is an important tool for commanders to ensure that US armed forces conduct themselves for the good order and discipline of the service. This is the sine qua non of the system: good order and discipline. Commanders are charged with this important duty.
Stung by the misconduct of mercenaries hired from Hesse in Germany by the British to fight during the Revolutionary War, America’s armed forces were created under the principles of customs of the service and good order and discipline. It is a proud tradition and a system that has worked for centuries overseen by a civilian US appellate court made up of five Senate confirmed judges. An Article 1 Court, the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ensures the system comports with law, policy, tradition and the Constitution. One of its important duties is to monitor the possibility of any hint of unlawful command influence.
If unlawful command influence is found to have occurred during the creation of a court’s martial proceeding, military appellate courts or the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will reverse any conviction. Further investigation and follow-up administrative or judicial punishment may occur against any commander having even attempted to, or in fact, influenced a proceeding. It’s serious, and at a minimum, career ending for a commander. It rarely happens. Commanders know their duties vis a vis the UCMJ.
Recently, President Trump, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States (a commander under the UCMJ) declared that a decorated special operations officer was being unfairly investigated/prosecuted for an alleged murder of an Afghan civilian. That is unlawful command influence …
Now retired from teaching at Syracuse University College of Law, David M. Crane is an INSCT Research & Practice Associate.