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Military and Native American Criminal Justice - Military Justice Reform

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During World War II the public often viewed military justice as unjust, too harsh, and following no set pattern. Many wanted military justice to be more like civilian procedures and Congress reorganized the military in 1947 into a department of the federal government, called the Department of Defense. Instead of separate justice systems for the army, air force, navy, and marines, there would be one military justice system run by the Department of Defense. During this time, European countries also reorganized their military justice systems, to be more like civilian courts.

Congress passed the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in 1951, a common criminal code for all military services. The military courts, also known as tribunals, explain and enforce these laws. The new codes took away some of the influence of military commanders over the judicial system. Over the next several decades the military system became more like civilian courts, however, the UCMJ maintained the important need for conducting speedy trials and handing out clear and predictable rulings to maintain order.

According to the codes, crimes such as murder, robbery, assault, and rape by military personnel against civilians are tried in the civil criminal justice system. If a military person commits a crime against another military person, the case is tried in military courts. If the crimes are committed against citizens of other countries when the United States is stationed abroad, the U.S. military tries to maintain jurisdiction through treaties with foreign countries.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century the U.S. Supreme Court still rarely interfered with the military process. One unusual instance was a ruling in 1969 when the Supreme Court overturned a court-martial verdict, stating that the military did not have jurisdiction over a soldier who committed a felony against a civilian away from a military base. In most cases though, the Supreme Court almost always lets military decisions remain in effect due to what it considers "military necessity."

A key ruling came in 1981 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services. The court ruled that the protections of the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, fully applied to military service members. These protections included freedom of speech, freedom from illegal search and seizure, and freedom from self-incrimination. The courts, however, have defined these protections to military justice only in very general ways instead of specific findings.

Like the Supreme Court, Congress has rarely used its constitutional authority to interfere with the military justice system. Public interest in military law only occurs during controversial or highly publicized cases. One such case came in 1971 when Lieutenant William Calley was convicted in the killing of five hundred unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai during the Vietnam War (1954–75; a controversial war in which the United States aided South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam). Calley was sentenced to life in prison, though he was paroled a short time later (some people felt that he was unfairly singled out and blamed for the killings). Otherwise the public pays little attention to the military judicial system, so there has been little pressure to reform. Military justice is relatively free of public scrutiny or interest.

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