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A Years-Long Effort To Reform The Military's Justice System Gains More Momentum

Several key House members, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have signed onto a groundbreaking Senate plan to overhaul the military's justice system, including how sex-related crimes are prosecuted, boosting the measure's chances. The legislation, now moving in both chambers, has momentum after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin backed a key provision on Tuesday.

Last month, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said her legislation to move serious crime cases out of the chain of command to trained military prosecutors finally had the bipartisan Senate support needed for passage.

Now, she has the support of Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who previously has sponsored her own bill to move sex-related crimes away from military commanders. Speier, Pelosi and a new group of bipartisan House members are on board with Gillibrand's broader efforts.

"We're here today for the service members who have spoken out or who have suffered in silence because the message and culture in the military has been clear: Shut up, suck it up and don't rock the boat," Speier told reporters Wednesday while flanked by Gillibrand, Pelosi and other House members.

Growing momentum for change

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The legislation would keep these serious crimes under military oversight but would allow such cases to be handled by criminal justice attorneys with relevant expertise rather than commanders who often lack legal training.

The new House support comes a day after the defense secretary said he also backed pulling sex-related crimes from the chain of command. Austin reiterated that statement in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee later on Wednesday.

"I know enough at this point to say that I fully support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command," Austin told lawmakers.

In May, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was dropping his opposition to the plan to pull sex-related assault cases from commanders. And a panel created by Austin also agreed recently that at least sexual assault cases should be pulled from the chain of command.

The panel issued its final recommendations Monday, but Gillibrand and others said it still falls short.

"We have a bright line at all serious crimes. And that is an important bright line," Gillibrand told reporters Wednesday. "We want to make sure that whether you're a plaintiff or a defendant, that you have access to a military justice system worthy of your sacrifice."

Gillibrand and other supporters said the plan must go beyond sex-related crimes and include all major crimes, such as murder and manslaughter.

Who supports the legislation

Both Speier and Gillibrand have been working on similar legislative efforts for years to move certain cases to more experienced prosecutors. Gillibrand first filed her legislation in 2013, while Speier filed hers in 2011.

Wednesday's move marks another major victory for Gillibrand, who has more than 60 bipartisan Senate co-sponsors — the threshold for passage in the upper chamber for the plan.

Earlier this year, Gillibrand joined forces with Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a sexual assault survivor before she became a veteran combat company commander. It marked a game changer as a new wave of previous holdouts joined as co-sponsors, clearing a potential runway for Senate passage possibly later this year.

Now, the backing from Pelosi and others bodes well for the legislation's passage in the lower chamber as well.

"I am very definite we will bring this to the floor; it will pass in the House," Pelosi said.

More than a half-dozen House members on Wednesday also said they were signing on with Speier and Pelosi. They include Republican representatives:

  • Mike Turner of Ohio
  • Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa
  • Trent Kelly of Mississippi
  • Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma
  • Other Democratic representatives joining the move include:

  • Sylvia Garcia of Texas
  • Veronica Escobar of Texas
  • Anthony Brown of Maryland
  • Elaine Luria of Virginia
  • Speier, Turner, Kelly, Escobar and Brown are also all members of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military.

    A passionate plea for a system that protects victims

    Mayra Guillén (left) and Lupe Guillen (center), sisters of Vanessa Guillén, a 20-year-old soldier who disappeared after being sexually harassed and was later found slain, speak alongside Speier on Wednesday.
    Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Mayra Guillén (left) and Lupe Guillen (center), sisters of Vanessa Guillén, a 20-year-old soldier who disappeared after being sexually harassed and was later found slain, speak alongside Speier on Wednesday.

    Turner was emotional in recalling the case of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who was killed in 2007 after being sexually assaulted. Turner said he dedicated his commitment to the bill to Lauterbach.

    "When we have a system that fails victims, everyone is failed," said Turner, the co-lead House sponsor for the legislation.

    Brown, an Army veteran, said the effort is especially key for minority service members and the military's justice system.

    "It fails our women and men in uniform, particularly Black and brown enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardians," Brown said, noting racial disparities in disciplinary actions and punishments against minority service members.

    Austin and other Pentagon officials, along with some key Senate members, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed, D-R.I., have stopped short of endorsing Gillibrand's broader plan to pull other major crimes from the chain of command.

    As a result, Gillibrand has taken to the Senate floor for multiple nights in recent weeks to gain verbal approval and bypass the Senate Armed Services Committee process. However, Reed has objected each time.

    Reed has said the bill should go through the regular order. With Reed's objection taking hold, the plan could get taken up in committee later this summer when the panel considers the annual defense bill.

    Speier said the tipping point for the efforts came with the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén and those of other service members who were not protected by the military's justice system.

    Speier last year named the bill for Guillén, who was killed in April 2020 at her base in Fort Hood, Texas. Her remains were later found along a Texas roadway.

    "Like I always ask when I stand up at a microphone, when are we going to start protecting the victims and not the victimizer?" a tearful Lupe Guillén, Vanessa Guillén's sister, told reporters.

    Watch her remarks below.

    In the military, commanders who are not lawyers get to choose which serious criminal cases go to trial. That means leaders who are pilots, infantry officers and hold other positions can be tasked with making weighty legal decisions with little to no experience.

    Reform supporters have said the system is no longer working. They point to Pentagon reports showing cases of sexual assaults remain at record highs, while prosecution and conviction rates are falling.

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    Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.