Opinion Analysis: CAAF muddies the waters of an appearance of unfairness in member selection in United States v. Sullivan, No. 15-0186/CG
CAAF decided the Coast Guard case of United States v. Sullivan, 74 M.J. 448, No. 15-0186/CG (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. The court finds that it was harmless error for the convening authority to categorically exclude flag officer from the pool of potential members, and that the military judge’s extensive personal and professional relationships with the court-martial participants does not raise an appearance of bias, affirming the decision of the Coast Guard CCA and the appellant’s convictions and sentence.
Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by all but Chief Judge Erdmann who dissents from the majority’s conclusion about an appearance of bias in the military judge.
The appellant is a senior Coast Guard Captain (O-6), with 27 years of service at the time of trial, who was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of officer members, of a single specification of wrongful use of cocaine in violation of Article 112a. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine and to be reprimanded. That sentence did not trigger automatic review by the CCA, but the Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard referred the case to the CCA court under Article 69(d). The CCA issued an unpublished opinion last September (discussed here) affirming the findings and sentence, and then CAAF granted review of two issues:
I. Whether the Government carried its burden of proving that the convening authority’s categorical exclusion of all flag officers was harmless.
II. Whether the military judge abused his discretion in denying challenges from both parties to his impartiality based on prior personal relationships with individual military counsel, the accused, trial counsel, several members, several witnesses, and the staff judge advocate.
In Wednesday’s opinion CAAF unanimously finds that the Government has met its burden to prove that the exclusion of flag officers was harmless, and it splits 4-1 to find that a reasonable person familiar with all the circumstances of the case would not conclude that the military judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.