Opinion Analysis: CAAF applies a reason-and-policy standard to determine the existence of court-martial jurisdiction, in United States v. Christensen
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Christensen, 78 M.J. 1, No. No. 17-0604/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. In a narrowly-written opinion, the court distances itself from (but does not overrule) its precedent regarding when a servicemember is discharged from the service and court-martial jurisdiction ends. CAAF concludes that under the specific facts of this case, reason and policy dictate that the appellant was discharged prior to his court-martial and so the tribunal lacked personal jurisdiction to try him. The court reverses the findings and sentence, and the decision of the Army CCA, and dismisses the charges.
Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Sparks. Judge Maggs writes separately, concurring, joined by Judge Ryan.
CAAF granted review of a single issue:
Whether Appellant was subject to court-martial jurisdiction.
In 2014, Private First Class (E-3) Christensen was convicted by a general court-martial of one specification of sexual assault in violation of Article 120 (2012), and sentenced to confinement for eight years, total forfeitures, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.
A year before the trial – in March 2013 – Christensen was pending administrative separation from the Army and “was arrested by civilian authorities for a suspected sexual assault involving another soldier and he was placed in civilian confinement.” Slip op. at 2. While in that civilian confinement, Christensen’s administrative separation was approved by the separation authority, a sergeant “fully cleared [Christensen] from post,” his military identification card was taken from him, and a noncommissioned officer visited him in April and told him “he was ‘out of the Army now’ and wished him good luck.” Slip op. at 2.
That, however, is not enough to discharge a servicemember from the Armed Forces under CAAF’s precedent. Rather, a servicemember is discharged (and court-martial jurisdiction ends) only after three things happen: “(1) the delivery of a discharge certificate (a DD Form 214); (2) a final accounting of pay; and (3) the completion of the clearing process that is required under service regulations.” Slip op. at 7 (citing United States v. Hart, 66 M.J. 273, 276-79 (C.A.A.F. 2008)).
Christensen was cleared, and a DD-214 was mailed to his home (stating his date of discharge as April 17, 2013), but his final accounting of pay was delayed by the chief of justice (senior prosecutor) at Fort Stewart, GA. That military prosecutor:
acted on his own authority and without coordinating with anyone in command. Further, neither he nor the OSJA contacted Appellant to let him know that they were halting his final pay. At the jurisdiction motions hearing, the chief of justice testified that he wanted to have the ability to exercise military jurisdiction over Appellant until he could “confirm that the civilians were going to prosecute this [sexual assault case] in a way that we felt was appropriate.”
Slip op. at 3-4 (marks in original). Judge Ohlson’s majority opinion also observes that:
Despite the actions of the chief of justice beginning in April 2013, it was not until August or September when the brigade commander formally requested a revocation of Appellant’s DD Form 214. Then on September 26, the Government preferred one charge and specification against Appellant. On September 30, the soldier processing center voided Appellant’s DD Form 214 and revoked his discharge. However, it was not until December that anyone from Appellant’s unit notified him that he was still considered a member of the armed forces and that he was going to be court-martialed.
Slip op. at 5. Thereafter Christensen “had difficulty using many of the facilities that would be readily available to active duty soldiers—such as the dining hall—because he was not on the roster of active duty military personnel. He likewise did not have an identification card, assigned quarters, or any of his own uniforms. Moreover, [Christensen] was not paid from April 2013 until January 2014.” Slip op. at 5-6.
Christensen challenged the existence of jurisdiction at trial and also on appeal at the Army CCA, but the challenge was denied on the basis that “there was no final accounting of pay” (as required under CAAF’s precedent, including Hart), and so there was no valid discharge. Slip op. at 6.
CAAF does not disagree with the conclusion that there was no final accounting of pay, but the majority nevertheless finds no jurisdiction to try Christensen by court-martial in 2014 because “to hold otherwise would clearly go against ‘reason or policy.'” Slip op. at 7 (quoting United States v. Nettles, 74 M.J. 289, 291 (C.A.A.F. 2015) (CAAFlog case page)).
Judge Maggs’ concurring opinion agrees with the majority’s conclusion that there was no jurisdiction, but it “prioritize[s] statutes and regulations over judge-made law.” Con. op. at 3. Seemingly uncomfortable with the majority’s embrace of a reason or policy exception to the three-part test from Hart, Judge Maggs and Judge Ryan would determine the existence of a jurisdiction-ending discharge by first identifying whether a statute or regulation “specifies when a discharge has occurred,” and if one does then “the Court would simply apply that statute or regulation.” Con. op. at 2. And in this case there is such a regulation: Army Regulation 635-200, “which provides, with certain exceptions not relevant here, that a discharge ‘is effective at 2400 on the date of notice of discharge to the Soldier.'” Con. op. at 2 (quoting AR 635-200 at ¶ 1-29.c).