The U.S. Senate on Monday voted unanimously to adopt legislation cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire that seeks reforms to prevent military sexual assault and hold commanders accountable in handling reports of sexual assault.
“So few things pass around this body unanimously, but it shows the bipartisan commitment we have to stopping this scourge of sexual assault in the military,” Ayotte said in remarks delivered on the Senate floor after its 97-0 vote to approve the Victims Protection Act, which Ayotte, R-N.H., crafted along with U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Ayotte said on the floor that passage of the bill “is not the end of this.”
“We will continue in the Armed Services Committee to make sure that the reforms that have been passed are implemented, that commanders are held accountable for a climate within their unit of zero tolerance and that victims of sexual assault are treated with dignity and respect and that they know that they will be supported if they come forward to report.”
The Senate last week rejected a measure sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have given military Judge Advocate General attorneys the final decision on whether to move forward with prosecuting certain serious crimes, including sexual assault, rather than unit commanders. Her bill was not supported by the Pentagon, which said it goes too far by taking decisions out of the chain of command.
While 55 senators voted to move Gillibrand’s bill forward, it didn’t receive enough votes to avoid a filibuster, effectively killing the bill.
Currently, JAG officers make recommendations to commanders, who have the final say on whether to move forward.
Ayotte’s bill calls for several changes to how reports of sexual assault and other serious crimes are handled, but aims to maintain the military’s chain of command by continuing to have unit commanders decide whether cases will be prosecuted.
The bill also introduces a host of new checks on a commander’s power to alleviate the fear that commanders will do nothing if a crime is reported. Should a commander not accept a JAG officer’s recommendation to prosecute an alleged crime, that case would be immediately appealed to the civilian Secretary overseeing that branch of the armed forces. Should both the JAG officer and unit commander agree that a case is not worth pursuing, that commander’s commanding officer or a general court martial would have to review the case as a final check against bias.
Ayotte’s proposals would also make retaliating against a victim a crime and would provide a Special Victims’ Counsel to provide legal advice and assistance to service members who are victims of a sexual assault committed by a member of the armed forces.