In an 8-0 opinion issued Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that military personnel accused of a rape between 1986 and 2006 -- a period previously subject to a five-year statute of limitations -- can be charged for the crime.
At issue in U.S. v. Briggs is a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, or CAAF, to overturn three rape convictions that occurred within that 20-year period.
Prior to 1996, the UCMJ held that rape was a crime punishable by death and therefore had no time limit for prosecuting the crime. A 1998 CAAF ruling established the five-year time limit, which remained in place until Congress moved to abolish it in 2006.
In the new opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the justices said the Uniform Code of Military Justice favored the government's interpretation that military rape cases are "punishable by death" and therefore, carry no statute of limitations regardless of when the crime occurred.
The justices also agreed with government's argument that rape is a particularly damaging crime in the military context because it disrupts good order and discipline.
"Among other things, the government argues that a rape committed by a service member may cause special damage by critically undermining unit cohesion and discipline and that, in some circumstances, the crime may have serious international implications. That also appears to have been the view of Congress and the executive," Alito wrote.
Attorneys for Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Briggs, convicted in 2014 of raping another service member in 2005, had argued that the statute of limitations did not exist when Briggs committed the crime. That defense was based on a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that eliminated the death penalty for rape cases in the U.S.; CAAF's 1998 decision and a February 2018 case; U.S. v. Mangahas, in which the military appeals court ruled that the death penalty for rape cases was a violation of the UCMJ's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Briggs’s conviction, as well as others, came after the law was changed to get rid of the five-year prosecution time limit.
But in Mangahas, decided in February 2018, the military appeals court affirmed the statute of limitations for cases that occurred in the 20-year legal gray area.
In Briggs, the government argued that rape is an "egregious and destructive crime" in any case, but rape by a member of the military "creates a unique set of harms that goes even beyond those of rape by a civilian."
Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall argued that the provision needed to remain to maintain "order and discipline and operate in a national security environment."
The justices agreed, with Alito saying that "punishable by death" is a "term of art that is defined by the provisions of the UCMJ specifying the punishments for the offenses it outlaws."
"The meaning of a statement often turns on the context in which it is made, and that is no less true of statutory language ... And in these cases, context is determinative," Alito wrote.
The decision reinstates the conviction of Briggs and two other cases -- that of Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Collins, who raped an airman in 2000, and Air Force Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels, convicted of raping a woman in Minot, North Dakota, in 1998.
The previous CAAF rulings have resulted in the dismissal of at least 10 other military rape cases, including the U.S. Army's case against retired Army Maj. Gen. James Grazioplene, accused in 2015 of sexually assaulting his teenage daughter between 1983 and 1989.
Grazioplene was prosecuted in a civilian court in Virginia, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years' probation after spending 18 months in jail.
In an addendum to the opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned whether the U.S. Supreme Court has authority over the CAAF.
"I continue to think this court lacks jurisdiction to hear appeals directly from the CAAF," Gorsuch wrote. "But a majority of the court believes we have jurisdiction, and I agree with the court's decision on the merits. I therefore join the court's opinion."
Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling since the case was argued Oct. 13, 13 days before her confirmation.