Opinion Analysis: Forged orders alone don’t create jurisdiction in United States v. Morita, No. 14-5007/AF
CAAF decided the certified Air Force case of United States v. Morita, 74 M.J. 116, No. 14-5007/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, March 16, 2015. The court rejected the Government’s expansive argument for court-martial jurisdiction over reservists, concluding that a forged order alone does not establish court-martial jurisdiction over a reservist not otherwise performing military duties. CAAF partially answers the certified issue in the negative, reverses the Air Force CCA in part, and remands the case for reassessment of, or a rehearing on, the sentence.
Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.
CAAF’s review involves two issues related to court-martial jurisdiction, one certified and the other granted:
Certified Issue: Whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals erred when it found the court-martial lacked subject matter jurisdiction and whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals abused its discretion when it refused to grant the Government’s motion to submit documents.
Granted Issue: Whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals erred by finding that a reservist can create court-martial jurisdiction by forging active duty orders and/or inactive-duty training orders and by finding that court-martial jurisdiction existed for each 120-day period listed on the three applications for MPA man-day tours.
Appellee, a reservist, repeatedly forged signatures in order to place himself on travel orders and to receive compensation for travel expenses related to reserve duty. “Appellee’s false claims for travel reimbursement totaled $124,664.03, and he forged 510 signatures or initials on more than 100 documents.” Slip op. at 6. He also had periods of legitimate reserve duty, and some of his offenses were committed during those periods.
At trial Appellee challenged the existence of court-martial jurisdiction, asserting (generally) that his misconduct occurred while he was not subject to the UCMJ. “The Government defended jurisdiction primarily on the grounds that Appellee made the forgeries in his official capacity as a reserve officer.” Slip op. at 7.
The military judge agreed with the Government, but the AFCCA reversed in part in a published opinion (discussed here) in which it reversed many of Appellee’s convictions and reduced the sentence dramatically. In particular:
[T]he CCA identified three separate statuses that Appellee occupied during the charged time frame: (1) valid active duty status obtained through authorized 120 MPA man-day tours, Morita, 73 M.J. at 558; (2) active duty status or inactive duty status based on documents that contained forgeries, although there was no evidence that Appellee actually reported for duty during the time periods covered by the forgeries, id. at 559; and (3) reserve status, held during the remainder of the charged time frame. Id. at 560. The CCA held that the first two categories conferred subject matter jurisdiction under Article 2(a), UCMJ. Regarding the third category, the CCA found that the record did not show enough facts to conclude that Appellee’s activities as a reservist rose to the level of “serving with” the armed forces under Phillips, 58 M.J. at 220, nor to show that the remaining statutory criteria were fulfilled, and thus there was no subject matter jurisdiction under Article 2(c), UCMJ.
Slip op. at 8. Judge Ryan’s opinion affirms the CCA’s finding of jurisdiction under the first status and its finding of no jurisdiction under the third status, but it reverses the CCA’s finding of jurisdiction under the second status, resulting in the reversal of even more of Appellee’s convictions. Additionally, Judge Ryan’s opinion does not directly address the portion of the certified issue involving the Government’s motion to submit documents, because the CCA found that the documents would not have changed its opinion and so “there is no justiciable issue for [CAAF] to resolve.” Slip op. at 20 n.7.