Legal experts study possible UCMJ changes
By LISA M. NOVAK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 30, 2009
The 2009 Commission on Military Justice is considering adapting court-martial rules in the event "enemy combatants" are tried before a UCMJ-based military commission, abolishing the intermediate Courts of Criminal Appeals and allowing petitions to the Supreme Court in all cases.
The panel, consisting of military legal experts, civilian lawyers, judges and law professors, met recently in Washington to review and discuss possible changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"Our goal is to make the military justice system function in a manner which ensures justice to the servicemember," said Walter Cox, former chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, who heads the commission. "We’re not looking to duplicate the civilian system; we all know that’s not perfect. We’re looking to improve on our own system."
Much of what the commission is looking at are procedural changes, for example eliminating the automatic-appeals process. On a court-martial conviction, a defendant’s case is automatically appealed, unlike in the civilian world.
"This puts defendants at a disadvantage because they cannot offer to waive the appeal for a lighter sentence," said Jonathan Tracy, assistant director for the National Institute of Military Justice and former Air Force lawyer.
The legal experts also reviewed how the 2007 law that subjects civilian contractors in a war zone to UCMJ authority is being implemented.
In June 2008, a military court convicted an Iraqi-Canadian translator for stabbing another interpreter and sentenced him to five months in jail.
Alaa "Alex" Mohammad Ali, who also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and lying to investigators, was the first civilian to be prosecuted by the military since the Vietnam War.
The panel also discussed decriminalizing sodomy and adultery.
"We still need a comprehensive sexual conduct code," Cox said.
Another suggestion would make it a crime to abuse or abandon a non-military animal.
The commission will complete its report by fall and recommend changes to the Congressional House Judiciary Subcommittee on Military Affairs. Congress must approve any changes to the UCMJ, which are then signed into law by executive order and included in the Manual for Courts-Martial.
The full list of topics presented to the 2009 Commission on Military Justice can be found at: