Testimony from Navy undersecretary nominee raises eyebrows
The woman nominated as the next undersecretary of the Navy has come under fire for a statement in her written testimony to Congress, though the full context of the statement largely mirrors the positions of many top military leaders and some on Capitol Hill.
At issue is a proposal to remove decisions about prosecutions for sexual assaults and other serious crimes from the chain of command. Advocacy groups and several members of Congress, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, have said that putting those legal decisions in the hands of military prosecutors who are not directly linked to the victim or accused servicemember’s unit is the only way to improve accountability and decrease the number of sexual assaults.
In response to a written question about the potential impact of requiring a judge advocate outside the chain of command to determine whether sexual assault allegations should be prosecuted, nominee Jo Ann Rooney wrote that judge advocates outside the chain of command would look at the case “through a different lens than a military commander.”
“I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline,” she wrote. “I believe this will result in fewer prosecutions and therefore defeat the very problem that I understand it seeks to address.”
Thursday, Gillibrand called Rooney’s statement about “decisions based on evidence” shocking and said it and others like it erode victims’ trust in the system.
“The United States legal system, based on evidence, justice and due process, is the cornerstone of our democracy. Why isn’t this good enough for our servicemembers who risk everything to protect those freedoms?” she said. “The brave men and women we send to war to keep us safe deserve nothing less than a justice system equal to their sacrifice.”
On Friday, the sexual assault victims’ advocacy group Protect Our Defenders called for a hold on Jo Ann Rooney’s nomination because of the comments.
The organization’s president, Nancy Parrish, said Rooney’s comments “do not reflect the attitude of a person who deserves to be in a position of leadership.”
“It is astounding to hear our military leaders proclaim that service members are not deserving of a system of justice based on the evidence in their case,” Parrish said. “While our military leaders testify that they are finally getting serious about ‘zero tolerance,’ their actions and testimony suggest the opposite.”
Still, military leaders and other members of Congress, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, have said that taking prosecution out of the chain of command would absolve commanders of responsibility and could result in fewer prosecutions – if lawyers with no connection to the unit believes there is not enough evidence for a conviction.
In her testimony, Rooney wrote that “commanders set the tone of their command” and “should be accountable for the health, safety and morale of their units — to include the command climate with regard to gender issues and sexual assault.”
Rooney said commanders’ words and actions “are visible models that inform subordinates of our true standards and expectations.”
She said that while consistent and effective policy guidance is needed, “no strategy to combat sexual assault, no matter how well-founded, could ever succeed without the active engagement of commanding officers and their chains of command.”
Rooney wrote that she understands the issue is being examined now and “would appreciate the opportunity to review data and recommendations” from a panel directed by Congress “before considering a change of this magnitude.”
And while Service Women’s Action Network Executive Director Anu Bhagwati said that Rooney’s statement was “un-American,” Navy officials said they look forward to working with Congress throughout Rooney’s confirmation process.
“The Navy remains committed to sexual assault prevention and response and has taken important steps in victim support and accountability,” the Navy official said. “The Navy also maintains that our commanders should be involved in each phase of the military justice process.”