Opinion Analysis: A CCA has the power to disapprove a mandatory minimum punitive discharge, in United States v. Kelly
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Kelly, 77 M.J. 404, No.17-0559/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. In a short, tightly-written opinion, CAAF holds that a court of criminal appeals does have the power to disapprove a mandatory minimum punitive discharge, reversing the published en banc (but non-unanimous) decision of the Army CCA.
Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.
Disclosure: I represent Sergeant Kelly as his civilian appellate defense counsel and I argued this case at CAAF on his behalf.
Sergeant (E-5) Kelly was convicted of abusive sexual contact and sexual assault, and was sentenced to confinement for one year, total forfeitures, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge. The punishment of dishonorable discharge was mandatory under Article 56(b) (as enacted as part of the 2013 changes to the UCMJ; analyzed here).
“On appeal before the ACCA, [Kelly] argued that the mandatory minimum sentence of a punitive discharge was inappropriately severe.” Slip op. at 6. The CCA, however, held that it lacked the authority to grant relief. “[T]he en banc ACCA, in a sharply divided 6-4 vote, affirmed, and did not reach the question of whether Appellant’s sentence ‘should be approved.'” Slip op. at 2-3 (quoting Kelly, 76 M.J. at 807). CAAF then granted review to determine:
Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals has the authority to disapprove a mandatory minimum punitive discharge.
The court later specified a second issue involving improper argument by the trial counsel:
In light of this Court’s decisions in United States v. Sewell, 76 M.J. 14 (C.A.A.F. 2017) [CAAFLog case page] and United States v. Pabelona, 76 M.J. 9 (C.A.A.F. 2017) [CAAFlog case page] did the lower court err when it determined the standard of review was waived when there was no objection to improper argument?
Chief Judge Stucky’s opinion for the unanimous court points to yesterday’s opinion in United States v. Andrews, 77 M.J. 393 (C.A.A.F. May 22, 2018) (CAAFlog case page), to answer the specified issue, and answers the granted issue in the affirmative and sets aside the judgment of the Army court.