Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Sunday called on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring to the floor a vote on a bipartisan bill that would overhaul the way the US military responds to sexual assault cases.
“I believe we should have a vote now. It is a hallmark bill, a generational bill of shifting how we address military justice, how we build the military justice system that’s worthy of the sacrifice our men and women in the military make,” Gillibrand told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” when asked if she thinks Schumer should bring the bill to a floor vote.
“This Memorial Day Weekend there is no better time to talk about the sacrifice the men and the women in our armed services have made for us,” the New York Democrat added.
The legislation, which was introduced last month by a bipartisan group of senators, would make significant changes to how sexual assault cases are handled, moving the decision-making power on whether to bring felony-level charges from the chain of command. But Gillibrand has been frustrated by the status of the legislation, which has remained in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Its chairman, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said last week that he supports a narrower change that only moves the decision-making power on bringing charges for sexual assault cases, not all felony-level charges. Reed has proposed including the change in the annual National Defense Authorization Act process instead of in a standalone bill.
The differing intraparty views on the issue were in full view Sunday, with Gillibrand taking aim at Reed’s position by arguing his narrowly defined change would set up two unequal justice systems within the military.
“His insistence on narrowing this bill to one crime — the crime of sexual assault — you’re going to basically break apart the criminal justice system within the military. You’re going to create one set of justice for one set of plaintiffs and defendants and the rest for everybody else. It’s not fair,” she told Tapper.
“Women will use this court. It will become a pink court and destabilize and make, unfortunately, a mockery of the entire criminal justice system,” Gillibrand said, noting that while men also experience sexual assault within the military, they’re less likely to come forward with claims.
“Senator Reed wants real, lasting, comprehensive reform. He is the first SASC Chairman in history to commit to taking sexual assault cases outside of the chain of command,” said Chip Unruh, communications director for Reed, in a Sunday statement to CNN. “He also thinks Congress should include other key initiatives to help prevent sexual assault and harassment, change the culture, and serve justice.”
The bill, which was originally introduced by Gillibrand, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa and others, would also take preventatives measures, including increasing training for all members of the military from ROTC to enlisted officers, as well as criminal investigators and military prosecutors, so they have the tools they need to work on sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
The new bill comes after years of work on the issue between Ernst and Gillibrand, and an evolution in the Senate where lawmakers have worked to change the culture of the military but argue they still haven’t seen enough results. In 2014, Gillibrand led the fight to remove the decision to prosecute military sexual assault cases from commanders. The effort didn’t fall along party lines, as she gained Republican supporters like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to her effort. But the bill ultimately fell short and failed to get 60 votes, in part because of Democratic opposition from then-Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Carl Levin of Michigan, who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee at the time.
Gillibrand explained on Sunday that the legislation was necessary to help remove bias within the charging process.
“To take biases out of the system across the board, you need a trained military prosecutor to make these decisions about whether it should go to trial. That takes it out of the chain of command. The chain of command has bias because they may know the perpetrator, the accused,” she said.
“They may know the survivor and they may have a certain lens about which service member’s better for fighting a war or better for good order and discipline within the ranks. That bias is inappropriate when it comes to serious felonies,” the senator added.