CAAFlog » CAAF Opinions

CAAF decided the Marine Corps case of United States v. Rosario, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0424/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, February 22, 2017. The court affirms the Navy-Marine Corps CCA’s consideration of facts supporting sexual assault allegations that resulted in acquittals in the court’s review of a conviction of sexual harassment, concluding that the facts that form the basis for both acquittals and convictions are permissible considerations during a CCA’s review of convictions.

Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.

Sergeant (E-5) Rosario was convicted contrary to his plea of not guilty, by a special court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of one specification of sexual harassment on divers occasions in violation of Article 92. Rosario was also charged with three unlawful touchings in violation of Articles 120 and 128, however he was acquitted of all of those offenses. The members sentenced Rosario to reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge.

The basis for the sexual harassment charge was, at least, a series of inappropriate comments that Rosario made to a female subordinate. On appeal Rosario asserted that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction of sexual harassment. The NMCCA rejected this challenge, concluding that the touchings forming the bases of the other charges (of which Rosario was acquitted) were evidence “offered in support of two separately charged offenses” – the sexual harassment offense and the 120/128 offense –  and that under such circumstances “an acquittal on one may not be pleaded as res judicata of the other.” United States v. Rosario, No. 201500251, slip op. at 4 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. Jan. 28, 2016) (link to slip op.) (marks and citation omitted).

CAAF then granted review of two issues:

I. Whether the lower court erred in conducting its Article 66(C), UCMJ, review by finding as fact allegations that supported charges of which Sgt Rosario was acquitted to affirm the findings and sentence.

II. Whether the military judge erred when he instructed the members, “If based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the accused is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him guilty,” where such an instruction is in violation of United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 572-73 (1977) and there is inconsistent application between the services of the instructions relating to when members must or should convict an accused.

Today’s opinion makes relatively short work of the first issue, and summarily rejects the second in light of the court’s opinion in United States v. McClour, __ M.J. __ (C.A.A.F. Jan. 24, 2017) (CAAFlog case page).

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Nieto, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0301/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, February 21, 2017. Considering the validity of a search authorization that was primarily based on military investigators’ experience-based assertions regarding how people use portable electronic devices, CAAF finds that the authorization lacked probable cause and reverses the appellant’s conditional pleas of guilty and the summary affirmation of the Army CCA.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court joined by all but Judge Stucky, who dissents.

Specialist (E-4) Nieto entered conditional pleas of guilty to numerous offenses that were discovered after he was accused of using a cell phone to surreptitiously record other soldiers using the toilet at Forward Operating Base Azizullah, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. After Nieto’s apprehension, an Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) special agent obtained authorizations to seize and search Nieto’s cell phone and also his laptop. The allegation did not involve the laptop, but the agent sought to include the laptop in the authorization based on his experience that “Soldiers using their cell phones to photograph things . . . back those up to their laptops . . .” Slip op. at 4 (quoting record). A second agent obtained a second authorization with the additional commentary that:

About 1024, 4 Jun 13, [Appellant] admitted to using his cellular telephone to view and record Soldiers utilizing the latrine while at FOB Azi Zullah [sic], Afghanistan. [Appellant] admitted to masturbating to the images on his cellular telephone of Soldiers utilizing the latrine.

It is my [i.e., SA Dunn’s,] experience as a CID Special Agent that persons who would use a portable digital media recorder would also transfer the media from a portable device to a computer station or storage device. Persons who view and record sexual acts often times store and catalog their images and videos on larger storage devices such as a computer or hard drive.

Slip op. at 5 (quoting record) (marks in original). Incriminating evidence was found on the laptop (leading to additional charges) but the cell phone “revealed nothing relevant to CID’s investigation.” Slip op. at 5 (marks omitted).

At trial Nieto unsuccessfully challenged the search authorizations as lacking probable cause to search the laptop, and his conditional pleas preserved his right to continue that challenge on appeal. The Army CCA summarily affirmed. CAAF then granted review of one issue:

Whether the military judge erred in denying Appellant’s motion to suppress the evidence seized from Appellant’s laptop computer

Today’s opinion finds no probable cause to seize the laptop based on “an insufficient nexus between Appellant’s cell phone and his laptop that can be inferred based on the particular facts presented to the military magistrate.” Slip op at 10 n.4. This conclusion echoes the conclusion in United States v. Hoffmann, 75 M.J. 120 (C.A.A.F. Feb. 18, 2016) (CAAFlog case page), where a unanimous CAAF rejected the adequacy of an asserted intuitive relationship between a child enticement offense and the possession of child pornography as a basis for probable cause. But Judge Stucky, who was the author of CAAF’s opinion in Hoffman, dissents from today’s opinion and decries it as “a constellation of shortcomings with regard to the law of probable cause, the facts of this case, and the application of law to fact.” Diss. op. at 10.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Dockery, __ M.J. __ No. 16-0296/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Tuesday, February 14, 2017. The court finds that the military judge committed error when he granted the prosecution’s challenge of a member, but that the error did not prejudice the appellant’s rights. CAAF reverses the decision of the Air Force CCA in part, but it affirms the findings and sentence.

Chief Judge Erdmann writes for the court, joined by Judge Stucky and Judge Ryan. Judge Sparks concurs, joined by Judge Ohlson.

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In an order issued today (available here) in the Air Force case of United States v. Ortiz, No. 16-0671 (CAAFlog case page), CAAF affirms the decision of the three-judge panel of the Air Force CCA that included a Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed judge of the Court of Military Commission Review:

On consideration of the briefs of the parties, the briefs of amici curiae, and oral argument, it is, by the Court, this 9th day of February, 2017,

ORDERED:

That the decision of the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals is hereby affirmed. The opinion of the Court will be issued on a future date. C.A.A.F. R. 43(b). A petition for reconsideration may be filed no later than days after the date of the issuance of said opinion.

CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Bowen, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0229/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Wednesday, February 8, 2017.  Concluding that the military judge failed to properly consider the condition of the appellant’s wife when admitting her non-verbal response as an excited utterance, CAAF reverses the findings and the decision of the Air Force CCA, authorizing a rehearing.

Chief Judge Erdmann writes for a unanimous court.

Airman First Class (E-3) Bowen was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court martial composed of officer members, of aggravated assault of his wife and also of assault of another airman, both in violation of Article 128. He was sentenced to confinement for one year and reduction to E-1.

The evidence admitted at trial included testimony by Air Force security personnel who entered Bowen’s house and found his wife unconscious and badly injured in the bathtub. An investigator testified – over defense objection – that the wife was partially conscious when she was asked if “her husband ‘did this’ to her,” and that in response the wife nodded her head indicating a positive response. Slip op. at 4. The Air Force CCA found no error.

CAAF specified an issue for review questioning the military judge’s ruling that permitted this testimony:

Whether the military judge erred in applying the “excited utterance” exception to the hearsay rule to permit the government to introduce through the testimony of law enforcement personnel that appellant’s wife nodded her head in response to a question whether her husband “did this,” and in concluding that the prejudicial effect of this testimony was outweighed by its probative value. SeeM.R.E. 802 and 803(2); M.R.E. 403; United States v. Donaldson, 58 M.J. 477 (2003); United States v. Jones, 30 M.J. 127 (C.M.A. 1990); United States v. Arnold, 25 M.J. 129 (C.M.A. 1987); United States v. Iron Shell, 633 F.2d 77 (8th Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1001 (1981).

In yesterday’s decision, CAAF determines that the military judge did abuse his discretion in admitting the head nod because he failed to properly consider the wife’s mental capacity. The court does not reach the separate question of whether the prejudicial effect of the head nod outweighed its probative value. Considering the impact the evidence had in the case – including that the defense asserted that the other airman (the other alleged victim) was the true source of the wife’s injuries – CAAF concludes that the erroneous admission affected both assault convictions.

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CAAF decided the Coast Guard case of Randolph v. HV and United States, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0678/CG (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), involving a writ-appeal filed by an accused, on Wednesday, February 2, 2017. Sharply divided, the court narrowly concludes that it does not have jurisdiction to review an interlocutory decision by a Court of Criminal Appeals rendered under the victim-focused Article 6b when the accused seeks such review and regardless of how the accused seeks such review. Accordingly, a three-judge majority dismisses the writ-appeal petition.

Judge Stucky writes for the court, joined by Judges Ryan and Ohlson. Judge Ryan also writes a separate concurring opinion. Chief Judge Erdmann dissents, joined by Judge Sparks who also files a separate dissenting opinion.

The writ-appeal challenged the decision of the Coast Guard CCA that significantly expanded the scope of Mil. R. Evid. 513 (the psychotherapist-patient privilege). The CCA’s decision (discussed here) was made on an Article 6b petition for mandamus filed by HV, who is the alleged victim in a case against the petitioner, Coast Guard Damage Controlman Second Class (E-5) Randolph. Article 6b – our #6 Military Justice Story of 2016 – is known as the Military Crime Victims’ Rights Act, because its provisions generally mirror those of the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3771. Among those provisions is one allowing an alleged victim to appeal a trial-stage ruling that affects the victim’s rights, and HV used that provision to win additional protections from the CCA for her mental health records.

Randolph appealed the CCA’s decision to CAAF (discussed here). CAAF agreed to hear the appeal and replaced the military judge as a party with the United States (discussed here). However, the court also specified an issue that questions whether it has jurisdiction to consider the appeal in its current form:

I. Whether the United States Court Of Appeals for the Armed Forces has jurisdiction over a writ-appeal petition filed by an accused who is seeking review of a court of criminal appeals’ decision rendered pursuant to Article 6b(e), UCMJ.

II. Whether the “confidential communications” protected by MRE 513 includes records of diagnosis.

Implicit in the specified issue was the fact that last year, in EV v. United States & Martinez, 75 M.J. 331 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 21, 2016) (CAAFlog case page), a unanimous CAAF found that it has no jurisdiction under Article 6b to entertain a writ-appeal by an alleged victim. In Randolph, CAAF wondered if an accused is similarly deprived of the opportunity for review.

Judge Stucky answer this question in the affirmative, concluding that:

the same analysis applies to Appellant’s petition. Article 6b expressly provides that enumerated victims’ rights can be enforced through a writ of mandamus obtained at a Court of Criminal Appeals. There is no mention of additional appellate rights for the accused, or of a grant of jurisdiction to this Court. Accordingly, we lack jurisdiction to consider Appellant’s petition.

Slip op. at 4 (citations omitted). A footnote adds this bit of rhetoric:

it makes no sense to allow the accused to utilize Article 6b, a victim’s statute, to go where the victim may not.

Slip op. at 6 n.2.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Sewell, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0360/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, February 1, 2017. In an opinion that names the trial counsel but avoids direct criticism of his performance, a majority of CAAF finds that the evidence supporting the convictions is sufficient to overwhelm any impropriety in the trial counsel’s closing argument. But a pointed dissent finds serious errors and casts the counsel as a bad role model. CAAF affirms the findings and the sentence and the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for the court, joined by all but Judge Ohlson who dissents in part.

Sergeant Sewell was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of six specifications of indecent conduct and one specification of assault with intent to commit rape. He was sentenced to confinement for one year, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge. The Army CCA granted one month of confinement credit for dilatory post-trial processing but otherwise approved the findings and sentence without further discussion. CAAF then granted review of an issue personally asserted by Sewell, alleging prosecutorial misconduct:

Whether the trial counsel committed prosecutorial misconduct by making improper argument on the findings.

The improper argument involved assertions about Sewell’s “criminal disposition or propensity” to which there was a sustained objection and a curative instruction, slip op. at 4-5, other arguments to which there were overruled objections that the majority do not fault, slip op. at 5 n.2, and alleged “improper vouching, references to facts not in evidence, and statements that purportedly inflamed the passions of the panel,” slip op. at 6, to which there was no objection at trial.

In her opinion for the court Judge Ryan finds that “some of trial counsel’s statements during argument were improper,” slip op. at 2, however she concludes that those improprieties were harmless in light of the evidence supporting the convictions:

Even assuming that trial counsel’s misconduct was severe and the military judge’s instructions were insufficient, we find the third Fletcher factor [the weight of the evidence supporting the convictions] dispositive.

Slip op. at 8. But Judge Ryan also identifies the trial counsel by name:

Appellant argues that the trial counsel, Lt. Col. Matthew McDonald, made improper arguments that prejudiced his right to a fair trial.

Slip op. at 4. This is generally considered to be a bad thing for the named attorney. It is also (by my recollection) the first time CAAF has named a trial counsel in connection with an allegation of impropriety since United States v. Salyer, 72 M.J. 415 (C.A.A.F. 2013) (CAAFlog case page), our #4 Military Justice Story of 2013 Correction: United States v. Stellato, 74 M.J. 473 (C.A.A.F. Aug. 20., 2015) (CAAFlog case page).

Judge Ohlson, however, is even more blunt.

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CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Pabelona, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0214/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, February 1, 2017. Reviewing the trial counsel’s closing argument for plain error (because the defense did not object during trial), CAAF finds that even if parts of the argument were improper there is no evidence of prejudice because of the weight of the evidence supporting the convictions. Accordingly CAAF affirms the findings and sentence and the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA.

Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.

Chief Hospital Corpsman (E-7) Pabelona was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of larceny and signing a false official statement. The convictions related to a so-called sham marriage (a marriage for the purpose of receiving military dependent benefits). Pabelona was sentenced to confinement for 60 days, restriction for 60 days, reduction to E-5, total forfeitures, and a fine of $60,000 (with a contingent 16 months of additional confinement as an enforcement provision). After considering numerous problems with the post-trial processing of Pabelona’s case, the NMCCA affirmed the findings and only so much of the sentence as provides for confinement for 60 days, reduction to E-5, total forfeitures, and a fine in the amount of $29,529.64.

CAAF granted review of two issues:

I. Prosecutors must act within the bounds of propriety. Here, in front of members, the prosecutor expressed his opinion of appellant including, “I think he’s an idiot,” opined on defense-friendly evidence, characterized appellant’s statements as “ridiculous,” vouched for government-friendly evidence, diagnosed appellant as schizophrenic, asked members to disregard defense arguments, and told members that appellant “sleeps in a bed of lies.” Was this plain error?

II. Whether the military judge erred when he instructed the members, “if based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced the accused is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him guilty,” where such an instruction is in violation of United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 572-73 (1977), and there is inconsistent application between the services of the instructions relating to when members must or should convict an accused.

Pabelona’s defense counsel did not object to any of these asserted errors, and so CAAF reviews for plain error. “The standard for plain error review requires that: ‘(1) an error was committed; (2) the error was plain, or clear, or obvious; and (3) the error resulted in material prejudice to substantial rights.’ The burden lies with [Pabelona] to establish plain error.” Slip op. at 3 (quoting United States v. Maynard, 66 M.J. 242, 244 (C.A.A.F. 2008)).

Applying the plain error standard, and without substantive analysis of the comments at issue, Judge Sparks finds that even assuming there was error there is no evidence of prejudice:

[W]e find the weight of the evidence supporting the conviction strong enough to establish lack of prejudice in and of itself. The Government presented ample evidence at trial to support the members’ findings. . .

. . . There is no evidence that the members failed to reach their decisions based on the evidence alone. There is nothing to indicate material prejudice to Appellant’s substantial rights.

Slip op. at 4-5. The court similarly – and summarily – rejects the second issue, with a citation to last week’s decision in United States v. McClour, __ M.J. __ (C.A.A.F. Jan. 24, 2017) (CAAFlog case page).

Case Links:
NMCCA’s opinion
Appellant’s brief
Appellee’s (Government) brief
Appellant’s reply brief
Blog post: Argument preview
Oral argument audio
CAAF opinion
Blog post: Opinion analysis

CAAF decided the Coast Guard case of United States v. Gomez, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0336/CG (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, January 30, 2017. Reviewing for plain error because there was no objection at trial, CAAF denies relief for the prosecution’s sentencing presentation that included questionable testimony from two victims, affirming the opinion of the Coast Guard CCA and the sentence.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court. Judge Stucky concurs with a single-paragraph separate opinion.

Boatswain’s Mate Second Class (E-5) Gomez was convicted of numerous offenses, including of misconduct involving two female crew members who he supervised: SW and MS. The prosecution called the female crew members to testify during the sentencing phase of the court-martial, and they both testified about pregnancy complications suffered after the offenses occurred. Gomez’s defense counsel neither objected to their testimony nor cross-examined either of them. The maximum authorized punishment included confinement for 120 years and 4 months. The prosecution requested a sentence that included 20-30 years of confinement, the defense requested a sentence of no more than five years confinement, and the members sentenced Gomez to confinement for eight years, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.

CAAF granted review to determine:

Whether the military judge erred by permitting two complaining witnesses to testify on sentencing that appellant was responsible for their pregnancy complications with no evidence connecting his misconduct to the complications.

This issue was reviewed for plain error – where Gomez “bears the burden of establishing the following three prongs: (1) there was error; (2) the error was clear or obvious; and (3) the error materially prejudiced a substantial right,” slip op. at 4 – because Gomez’s defense counsel did not object.

In today’s opinion Judge Ohlson concludes that Gomez is not entitled to any relief because he “has not established the prejudice prong for the testimony of SW, or the clear or obvious prong for the testimony of MS.” Slip op. at 4. The first conclusion is rather unremarkable, but the second conclusion invokes a possible new standard for plain error in military cases: that an “error is clear if “the trial judge and prosecutor [would be] derelict in countenancing it, even absent the defendant’s timely assistance in detecting it.” Slip op. at 8 (quoting United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 163 (1982)) (marks in original).

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. McClour, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0455/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, January 24, 2017. With a short opinion that answers no more than the question presented by the specific facts of this case, CAAF concludes that it was not plain or obvious error for the military judge to instruct the members that if they were “firmly convinced that the accused is guilty of the offense charged, [they] must find him guilty.” Accordingly, CAAF affirms the decision of the Air Force CCA.

Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

Military judges give instructions to the members of a court-martial. Model instructions are published in the Military Judges’ Benchbook (Dep’t of the Army, Pam. 27-9). Those model instructions include one commanding the members that:

[I]f on the whole evidence you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the truth of each and every element, then you should find the accused guilty.

Benchbook ¶ 2-5-12 (emphasis added). In this case, however, in Air Force cases generally, and sometimes in cases in other services, military judges give a different instruction:

If, based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the accused is guilty of any offense charged, you must find him guilty.

Slip op. at 2 (emphasis added). McClour’s defense counsel did not object to this instruction at trial, but on appeal McClour asserted that it suffers from numerous flaws. The Air Force CCA disagreed. CAAF then granted review to determine:

Whether AFCCA erred when it failed to grant relief where the military judge instructed the members, “if based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the accused is guilty of any offense charged, you must find him guilty,” where such an instruction is in violation of United States V. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 572-73 (1977) and there is inconsistent application between the services of the instructions relating to when members must or should convict an accused.

CAAF also granted review of a similarly-worded issue in 21 other cases: 7 from the Air Force and 13 from the Navy/Marine Corps.

Tuesday’s opinion might not resolve all of the cases presenting this issue, as CAAF neither endorses nor condemns the must convict instruction. Rather, Judge Stucky’s opinion concludes only that giving the must convict instruction is not plain error.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Wilson, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0267/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Friday, January 13, 2017. Considering an issue raised personally by the appellant, CAAF concludes that a fenced motor pool is not a structure for the purposes of housebreaking in violation of Article 130, 10 U.S.C. § 930. Accordingly, the appellant’s housebreaking conviction is factually insufficient and CAAF reverses the conviction and the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.

Specialist (E-4) Wilson and an accomplice entered the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion motor pool at Fort Benning, Georgia, intending to steal batteries. They were caught. Wilson pleaded guilty to larceny in violation of Article 121 (for prior thefts) but he contested a charge of housebreaking of the motor pool in violation of Article 130.

The offense of housebreaking requires unlawful entry into a building or structure. The motor pool at issue, however, “is a concrete lot completely surrounded by a fence. . . used for the storage and maintenance of military property, including vehicles.” Slip op. at 3. The motor pool contains sotrage buildings, but Wilson did not enter any building “nor did he cut any locks, open any doors, or climb through the windows of any building.” Slip op. at 3.

At trial Wilson moved for a finding of not guilty arguing that the motor pool did not qualify as a structure under Article 130. The military judge denied the motion. Wilson renewed his argument on appeal but it was rejected by the Army CCA. CAAF then granted review of a single issue:

Whether the military judge erred in denying the defense motion for appropriate relief under Rule for Court-Martial 917 where the military judge improperly applied Article 130, housebreaking, to a motor pool.

CAAF finds that the military judge did err.

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Disclosure: In my personal capacity I represent an appellant whose case is before CAAF with issues similar to those raised in this case.

In a per curiam opinion issued today in United States v. Dalmazzi, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0651/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), CAAF finds that the appellant’s challenge to the participation of a judge of the United States Court of Military Commission Review (USCMCR) on the panel of the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals that decided her case is moot because the judge had not yet been appointed as a USCMCR judge when the CCA decided the case.

CAAF’s reasoning for why the date of the appointment is controlling is that:

three separate actions are required for the President to appoint an “additional judge” to the USCMCR under the terms of 10 U.S.C. § 950f: (1) the President nominates a person for the position and sends his name to the Senate for confirmation; (2) the Senate confirms the nominee; and (3) the President appoints the confirmed nominee to the position.

Normally, the President signs a commission as evidence of the appointment. But

if an appointment was to be evidenced by any public act, other than the commission, the performance of such public act would create the officer; and if he was not removable at the will of the President, would either give him a right to his commission, or enable him to perform the duties without it. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 156 (1803). While not necessary for the appointment, the commission is “conclusive evidence of it.” Id. at 157. Before the issuance of the commission, the President is free to change his mind and not make the appointment; afterwards, he is not. See Dysart v. United States, 369 F.3d 1303, 1311 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

Appellant argues that actions Colonel Mitchell took as a judge on the USCMCR before the President issued the commission were public acts that evidenced his appointment. We disagree. It is the President who must perform some public act that evinces the appointment, not the purported appointee. See, e.g., Dysart, 369 F.3d at 1306, 1312. Other than the commission, issued on May 25, 2016, there is no evidence that the President appointed Colonel Mitchell to the USCMCR. Therefore, that is the date of his presidential appointment as judge to the USCMCR.

Slip op. at 4.

The underlying issue remains before CAAF in dozens of cases presenting the same challenge involving judges on the Army, Air Force, and Navy-Marine Corps courts.

Case Links:
AFCCA opinion
Blog post: CAAF to review whether an appellate military judge can sit on both a CCA and the CMCR
Blog post: CAAF grants oral argument to the Military Commissions Defense Organization as amicus in support of neither party in Dalmazzi
Appellant’s brief on granted issues
Appellee’s (Government) brief on granted issues
Appellant’s reply brief on granted issues
Amicus brief of the Military Commissions Defense Organization
Amicus brief of the Army Appellate Government Division
Amicus Brief of the Navy-Marine Corps Appellate Government Division
Blog post: Potential mootness in Dalmazzi
Appellant’s brief on specified issue
Appellee’s (Government) brief on specified issue
• Blog post: Argument preview
Oral argument audio
CAAF opinion
Blog post: Opinion analysis

CAAF decided the Marine Corps case of United States v. Sterling, 75 M.J. 407, Nos. 15-0510/MC & 16-0223/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, August 10, 2016. The court holds that Sterling’s disobedience of an order could qualify for protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), however the majority finds that Sterling failed to establish that the order she violated substantially burdened her exercise of religion. Accordingly, CAAF affirms the findings and sentence.

Judge Ryan writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Erdmann, Judge Stucky, and Senior Judge Cox. Judge Ohlson dissents.

Contrary to her pleas of not guilty, Lance Corporal (E-3) Sterling was convicted by a special court-martial, composed of members with enlisted representation, of failure to go to her appointed place of duty, disrespect towards a superior commissioned officer, and four specifications of disobeying the lawful order of a noncommissioned officer, in violation of Article 86, 89, and 91. She was sentenced to reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge.

Sterling’s court-martial arose out of her contentious relationship with her superiors. She elected to represent herself at trial (though she had the assistance of detailed military defense counsel). She was convicted of offenses for her refusal to wear the service C uniform, her refusal to perform duty handing out vehicle passes, and her refusal to obey an order to remove three signs that she posted in her office workspace. The signs stated “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” and Sterling asserted at trial and on appeal that the signs represented the Christian trinity and were posted as an expression of her religious belief.

The Navy-Marine Corps CCA affirmed the findings and sentence after concluding that Sterling’s conduct was not entitled to protection under RFRA. CAAF then granted review of two issues specified by the court, and the Judge Advocate General of the Navy certified two additional issues:

Specified Issues:
I. Did Appellant establish that her conduct in displaying signs referencing biblical passages in her shared workplace constituted an exercise of religion within the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1 (2012), as amended? If so, did the actions of her superior noncommissioned officer in ordering her to take the signs down, and in removing them when she did not, constitute a substantial burden on appellant’s exercise of religion within the meaning of the Act? If so, were these actions in furtherance of a compelling government interest and the least restrictive means of furthering that interest?

II. Did Appellant’s superior noncommissioned officer have a valid military purpose in ordering appellant to remove signs referencing biblical passages from her shared workplace?

Certified Issues:
I. Did Appellant’s failure to follow an instruction on the accommodation of religious practices impact her claim for relief under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

II. Did Appellant waive or forfeit her Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim of error by failing to raise it at trial?

In yesterday’s decision CAAF concludes: that the order was lawful (answering the second granted issue in the affirmative); that Sterling’s failure to follow the procedures to seek an accommodation is relevant (answering the first certified issue in the affirmative); that Sterling did not waive or forfeit her claim under RFRA (answering the second certified issue in the negative), and; that Sterling failed to establish the facts necessary to prevail on a RFRA claim (answering the first granted issue in the negative).

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CAAF decided the certified Marine Corps case of Howell v. United States, 75 M.J. 386, Nos. 16-0289/MC & 16-0367/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Unanimously affirming that a CCA has jurisdiction to consider a Government petition for extraordinary relief under the All Writs Act, CAAF splits 3-2 to find that the military judge erred in finding that the Government violated the Article 13 prohibition against pretrial punishment in connection with a pay dispute. CAAF remands the case back to the NMCCA for further consideration of the Government’s request for a writ of prohibition to prevent application of the military judge’s award of 343 days of confinement credit.

Judge Sparks writes for the court (in his first opinion), joined by Senior Judge Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (sitting by designation). Judge Stucky writes separately, concurring in the result. Judge Ohlson dissents from the result, joined by Chief Judge Erdmann, both of whom would find that Article 13 was violated.

CAAF reviewed four issues certified by the Judge Advocate General of the Navy; one certified at the request of the Defense and three certified at the request of the Government:

Defense issue:
I. Whether the Government may invoke Article 66, UCMJ, as the jurisdictional basis for an extraordinary writ pursuant to the All Writs Act when the issue is not included as a basis for Government appeal under Article 62, UCMJ?

Government issues:
II. Whether the military judge, in finding an Article 13, UCMJ, violation, exceeded his authority by rejecting applicable holdings of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the Court of Federal Claims, in order to conclude that appellee was entitled to pay at the A-6 rate pending his rehearing?

III. Whether the lower court erred by concluding that the setting aside of appellee’s findings and sentence rendered his reduction to pay grade E-1 prospectively unexecuted pending rehearing?

IV. If a member’s original sentence includes an executed reduction to pay grade E-1 and the sentence is subsequently set aside, does the action of paying that member at the E-1 rate pending rehearing constitute illegal pretrial punishment in the absence of any punitive intent?

This case was included in our #4 Military Justice Story of 2014, as the appearance of unlawful command influence led to the reversal of Staff Sergeant Howell’s conviction of sexual assault. A rehearing was authorized. Howell was restored to his rank of E-6 and to full duty pending that rehearing, however he was only paid at the E-1 rate (based on the Government’s interpretation of the applicable military pay statutes and Article 75(a) which addresses restoration after a court-martial is set aside).

Howell complained and the military judge agreed that he was entitled to be paid as an E-6, finding that the Government’s actions constituted illegal pretrial punishment in violation of Article 13. As a remedy the military judge ordered that Howell receive credit against any sentence to confinement in the form of one day of confinement credit for each day of pay at the E-1 rate.

The rehearing proceeded and Howell was convicted and sentenced to confinement for nine years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge. The military judge’s ruling resulted in 343 days of confinement credit due to Howell. But then, prior to the convening authority taking action, the Government filed a petition for a writ of prohibition at the Navy-Marine Corps CCA seeking to reverse the military judge’s award of confinement credit. The NMCCA stayed the post trial proceedings and (in an opinion discussed here) granted the Government petition in part, reducing the award of credit to 308 days. The Judge Advocate General of the Navy then certified the case to CAAF.

With yesterday’s opinion CAAF overwhelmingly affirms the Government’s ability to seek such relief, and narrowly interprets Article 13 to require evidence of actual intent to punish (and not merely punitive effect).

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CAAF decided the capital Air Force case of United States v. Witt, 75 M.J. 380, No. 15-0260/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. In a short opinion the court sets aside the second decision of the Air Force CCA (that affirmed the sentence of death) and reinstates the first decision (that reversed the sentence of death), authorizing a sentence rehearing.

Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

In 2005 a general court-martial composed of twelve officer members convicted Senior Airman Witt of the premeditated murder of a fellow Airman and his wife, and also of the attempted murder of another Airman, and sentenced Witt to death. About 18 months later the prosecution team published a detailed first-person account of the trial proceedings in the Air Force JAG Corps magazine, The Reporter (available here).

In 2013 Witt’s death sentence was set aside by the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals sitting en banc (discussed here). The CCA unanimously concluded that Witt’s trial defense team was deficient in failing to investigate three areas relevant for the sentencing portion of the court-martial. But the court split 3-2 on the question of prejudice, narrowly finding that had Witt’s counsel not been deficient then the members might not have adjudged the death sentence. The CCA remanded for a sentence rehearing.

But then the Government sought reconsideration by the CCA, and in a dramatic reversal the court reinstated Witt’s death sentence in a second en banc decision issued in 2014 (discussed here). As it had in the first decision, the CCA again found that Witt’s trial defense counsel were deficient. But on the crucial question of prejudice the court split 4-2 to find that Witt was not prejudiced by his counsel’s errors, and accordingly it approved the adjudged sentence of death. This reversal of fortune was our #7 Military Justice Story of 2014.

Because Witt had an approved sentence of death, CAAF’s review was mandatory (see Article 67(a)(1)), and the court specified two issues that questioned whether the AFCCA could reinstate the capital sentence in the way that it did:

I. Whether a court of criminal appeals sitting en banc can reconsider a previous en banc decision of that court pursuant to statutory authority, applicable precedent, or inherent authority?

II. Whether a decision of a court of criminal appeals sitting en banc can be reconsidered en banc when the composition of the en banc court has changed?

In today’s decision CAAF holds that a CCA does have the authority to reconsider en banc a prior en banc decision, however it finds that three of the AFCCA judges who participated in the reconsideration were disqualified from doing so.

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