The Senate on Thursday voted down a military sexual assault bill that would have stripped commanders of their authority to determine what cases are prosecuted.
The vote just after 2 p.m. came after a number of senators took to the floor to defend and oppose the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY. The bill would have transferred the decision whether to prosecute a crime that would carry a sentenced of more than a year in jail to a military prosecutor, except in strictly military crimes such as disobeying orders or going AWOL.
Sexual assault has emerged as a top priority for the military following a string of high profile cases involving top military leaders to include the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne whose court martial for sexual got underway the same day as the vote.
The New York senator made an impassioned appeal to her Senate colleagues to remember that what they think of the commander's role is not important.
"It's not whether anyone in this chamber trusts the chain of command," she said. "The people who don't trust the chain of command are the victims."
She said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Amos acknowledged that fact when he told lawmakers the reason female Marines do not report sexual assaults is they don't trust commanders to follow through and do the right thing.
Recent surveys of the military has found the number of reported sexual assaults have risen in the ranks as well as at the service academies. Some observers say this is a sign the system is working and allowing victims to finally come forward.
In some examples of command failures, Gillibrand told of a male Marine who was drugged and raped, whose attacker admitted the crimes, but then received no jail time. Another victim, she said, was raped by several military police and security troops, including officers, who tossed her into the Bering Sea expecting she would be silenced by her death.
Immediately afterward, lawmakers moved to end debate on a related bill, the Victims Protection Act of 2014, sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-NH.
The McCaskill-Ayotte bill removes the so-called "good soldier defense," which has allowed defendants to use "good military character" as a consideration in their favor. It also requires special counsels to advise victims of the advantages and disadvantages of a case being prosecuted in the military or civilian justice systems, and gives victims a say in the venue.
Their bill will also allow victims to challenge their discharge or separation from the military and gives the prosecutor more of a role in advising commanders on going to court martial with a sexual assault case.
Unlike Gillibrand's bill, it leaves in place a commander's authority to decide prosecutions.
McCaskill and Ayotte both previously backed Gillibrand's legislation, but changed their minds after a special panel of experts concluded the commander not only was important to the process, but more often than not assured that cases went to court even when a military prosecutor thought the case would not hold up.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org