Hagel to strip military courts' power

Convening authorities, beware. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel soon will ask Congress to strip from the military justice system one of its most powerful and most controversial features: the ability for commanding officers to reduce or eliminate criminal convictions and sentences.

In a statement issued Monday, Hagel said he has asked the Pentagon’s top lawyers to prepare legislation to submit to Congress that would eliminate the “convening authority” power to reduce punishments in all cases, “except for certain minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court-martial.”

“The changes have the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries,” Hagel said.

The controversy over sentence reductions is not new, but until recently has been relegated mostly to military legal circles. But members of Congress exploded after hearing in March that a three-star, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson in Aviano Air Base, in Italy.

In the military system, the move was completely legal and cannot be appealed to any higher authority, including Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or President Obama. By eliminating the power to reduce convictions and sentences altogether, Hagel’s measure, if adopted in Congress, would eliminate the need for appeal.

Military justice experts say the power of the convening authority to reduce punishments is intended to be used as a discretionary tool of discipline within the ranks. But Franklin’s decision widely was panned.

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