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I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) recently represented a client at Fort Campbell in a Summary Court Martial and upon reflection have decided to follow up on an earlier post about Summary Courts-Martial (https://jaglaw.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/summary-court-martial-a-fair-process/). The reason for this is that there was a suggestion in my prior post that Summary Courts-Martial are somehow inherently unfair. That was not what I intended to convey. I was attempting to portray the feel of a summary courts-martial to the servicemember and also the inherent problem with using summary court officers who are wholly unaware of the legal aspects of the UCMJ and the Rules in the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM).
Last week, I represented a soldier at Fort Campbell on several drug charges. In that case there were issues that had to be heard through a Motion to Suppress. The case in some ways hinged on whether or not Article 31 rights had been given to the soldier and whether or not his statement and all derivative evidence should be suppressed (fruit of the poison tree doctrine). The Summary Court Officer began the proceeding with an eye towards conviction, but as the Summary Court proceeded he became very thought and began to examine the legality and competency of the evidence. In his verdict, he took into account the Article 31 rights issue and weighted it against the competent evidence that had been presented. Some of this thoughtful analysis was brought about by the long discussions and period of education that took place between myself, as the only attorney in the room, the Summary Court Officer and the paralegal assigned to record the record of trial. In the end, using his own initiative, the Summary Court Officer was able to properly navigate the proceeding and come up with both findings and sentence that were legally justified and consistent with a judgement that would have been found in a higher level Courts-Martial in front of a judge or panel.
Much of this was obviously driven by the personality and training of the Summary Court Officer. In essence, he was a GOOD one. That ultimately is the problem with Summary Court Martials. Judges have been trained to provide consistency in the Court Martial. They know the rules of evidence. Hopefully, they are up on their case law. Most of the military and civilian attorneys that practice before a Judge have an idea of how he rules. All of these things provide defense attorneys and their clients a basis for good advice and sound decision-making. This is much harder when you are operating in the realm of the Summary Courts-Martial.
In my Motion to Suppress at the Summary Court Martial last week, although the Motion was a valid legal argument, I did not know how the Summary Court Officer would view the Motion. Was this defense trickery? Was this a non-issue because he didn’t care? Was he already convinced the accused was guilty? It was hard for me to advise the client on whether or not he should object to the SCM because I didn’t know whether or not there would be an honest and fair assessment of our case by the SCM Officer. We were lucky that this SCM Officer was very thoughtful and serious about the process.
Some of the arbitrariness of the Summary Court Process could be taken away by giving the SCM Officer more training in this area. Maybe picking them for a term of duty or sending them through a class on legal justice. Either way, if some of the arbitrariness is taken away, an SCM can be the best way for a servicemember to go.