Much to the Pentagon's disapproval, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is taking steps to remove sexual assault prosecution from the usual military chain of command by attempting to amend the 2014 National Defense Authorization Bill.
Many U.S. military leaders seeking to preserve commander authority have also openly opposed Gillibrand's effort; among the more notable opposing lawmakers is Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who serves alongside Gillibrand as a member of the Armed Services Committee. According to Gillibrand's staff, however, 46 senators (38 Democrats and 8 Republicans) have publicly announced their support for her plan.
When the bill hits the Senate floor for debate before the end of the month, it will need 51 votes to pass. Gillibrand, along with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), are scheduling media appearances and news conferences in hopes of attracting at least five more votes.
Also acting to reform the handling of sexual assault in the military, Boxer has introduced a bill of her own, purporting to limit the scope of pre-court-martial proceedings. Motivated by alleged problems in rape investigations, Boxer argues that her proposed changes will protect victims from potentially abusive questioning by exempting them from having to testify at such Article 32 hearings. "The current system is a disaster," Boxer contends, "and the reason it's a disaster is because there's no protection for the victim in that room at all."
Boxer further attacked the current procedure for waging war against the victim, labeling the entire experience "catastrophic." In arguing as much, Boxer specifically cited news accounts of a recent Article 32 hearing in which a female Naval Academy service member was aggressively questioned about her alleged rape over the course of eight days, totaling an excess of 30 hours. Boxer's bill aims to prevent such issues by providing sexual assault victims with special counsel while restricting the commanders' ability to amend court-martial results.
Boxer has gained support from influential conservatives like Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). McCaskill and Gillibrand, among other prominent liberals, have publicly backed the bill as well.
"Everyone who's looked at the Article 32 process agreed that it's unnecessarily harsh for survivors," McCaskill reasoned.
Many military law experts and practitioners, however, oppose Boxer's bill, arguing that the proposed revisions will unnecessarily obscure an already-complicated system.
"Dramatic changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice . . . without careful study (and) consideration of impact, increase the likelihood of unintended consequences,"
Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued before a Pentagon panel this past September.