Commanders may communicate policies in order to maintain good order and discipline. However, they may not make statements to subordinates as to the result they expect in various types of case. For example, the commander may not proclaim that all drug use allegations or sexual assault allegations must be brought to trial. Nor can them make a statement as to the type of punishment a certain type of criminal case warrants. This would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the independent decisions of subordinates who must use their judgment as to the disposition of a case.
I recall an instance when I was a military defense counsel. After a contentious court-martial, I ran into one of the court members who was on the panel for my client’s court-martial. What was a great result for my client, was not received well by the court-member’s commander. The court member told me that after the court-martial, he was called in by his commander and the commander expressed his displeasure regarding the sentence my client received–that was perceived as very light by this commander.
As you might imagine, this caused me great concern. How could this officer who was a court member make an independent decision if selected to sit as a court member on another court martial? His commander already expressed his displeasure about the light sentence my client got. Would this officer be able to exercise his independence and vote for a sentence he thought was appropriate or would feel pressured to adjudge a harsher sentence to please the commander? Would the officer do what was expected so his career would not be affected?
I loved my service as a judge advocate in the United States Air Force because I saw that military members generally do the right thing. In the Air Force, we were constantly taught about integrity and taught to have the courage to do the right thing. This was indoctrinated into us throughout our years in the Air Force. In fact, the first Air Force Core Value is “Integrity First.” Integrity means being honest and being fair and doing the right thing–regardless of the consequence.
So, it is disconcerting when I read in the news about cases where senior military members come forth and state that political pressure and unlawful command influence caused the officer to make a particular decision regarding a military member’s fate. All military members deserve a fair disposition of their case, whether it be at a trial or other forum. Military members facing discipline should not have to worry that their case is not going to get a fair review because of political pressure from on high. While good order and discipline is critical to the armed forces, each and every cases should be judged on its merits–on the facts–not on what would look good in the media or to politicians. Those who defend us every day deserve nothing less.
If you are under investigation, you should speak to a defense lawyer immediately. You need to know your rights and understand the process each step of the way. Don’t wait until it’s too late to get the help you need.
Ferah Ozbek is a retired from the United States Air Force where she served as an active duty judge advocate for over 20 years. She continues to practice military law and represents military members and veterans who are facing injustice. To learn more about how Ferah can help you, you can send her an e-mail at [email protected] or direct message her on LinkedIn. Visit Ferah’s website at ferahozbek.com