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August 30, 2011

Trying Former Soldiers in Federal Court

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the conviction of a former Army Private, Steven D. Green, for sexual assault and the murder of four Iraqi civilians in 2006. What makes this case unique is that Green was tried in federal district court rather than in a military court-martial. By the time Army officials became aware of the allegations against Green, the military had discharged him from the service. Court-martial jurisdiction is based on the status of the soldier at the time of the offense and at the time of trial. Because Green was no longer a member of the military at the time the Army discovered the allegations, court-martial jurisdiction no longer existed.

Prior to 2000, this situation created a jurisdictional gap whereby former service members could avoid criminal prosecution for acts they committed but were not discovered before they were discharged. In 2000, Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) to close that gap. Under MEJA, the U.S. Government may prosecute former soldiers for crimes they committed outside the special territorial and maritime jurisdiction of the United States while they were members of the military. Prosecutions under MEJA have been rare, and the case against Steven Green represents one of the few times federal authorities have used the statute.

Use of MEJA to prosecute former service members for crimes committed outside of U.S. territory raise several constitutional issues. The Sixth Circuit opinion in Green addresses a number of these issues, including Green’s contention that MEJA violates separation of powers. Green contended that MEJA violates this principle because it expands the executive’s power to enforce the law by expanding its jurisdiction. The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument. The court agreed that MEJA represents an expansion of executive authority, but that expansion does not come at the expense of another branch of government. Accordingly MEJA is no different than any other federal law that increases the categories of criminal conduct.

This holding is interesting in light of the ongoing debate over whether terrorist suspects should be tried in federal court or in military commissions. Those who have argued for trial in military commissions assert that federal courts lack the necessary tools to handle these cases and, therefore, a special and separate system of adjudication is needed. Cases like Green suggest the opposite. According to the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Green, Congress can in fact provide the executive with the authority to try problematic cases in federal courts, and, if this decision is any indication, courts are likely to give significant deference to those congressional grants of authority.