When President Obama proclaimed that those who commit sexual assault in the military should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” it had an effect he did not intend: muddying legal cases across the country.
In at least a dozen sexual assault cases since the president’s remarks at the White House in May, judges and defense lawyers have said that Mr. Obama’s words as commander in chief amounted to “unlawful command influence,” tainting trials as a result. Military law experts said that those cases were only the beginning and that the president’s remarks were certain to complicate almost all prosecutions for sexual assault.
“Unlawful command influence” refers to actions of commanders that could be interpreted by jurors as an attempt to influence a court-martial, in effect ordering a specific outcome. Mr. Obama, as commander in chief of the armed forces, is considered the most powerful person to wield such influence.
The president’s remarks might have seemed innocuous to civilians, but military law experts say defense lawyers will seize on the president’s call for an automatic dishonorable discharge, the most severe discharge available in a court-martial, arguing that his words will affect their cases.
“His remarks were more specific than I’ve ever heard a commander in chief get,” said Thomas J. Romig, a former judge advocate general of the Army and the dean of the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. “When the commander in chief says they will be dishonorably discharged, that’s a pretty specific message. Every military defense counsel will make a motion about this.” . . .Obama professes to be a constitutional law expert, but he has repeatedly allowed race and his personal views to trump the rule of law by wading into legal cases where he has no business voicing an opinion. Early in his administration he angered many police officers when he took the side of a black Harvard law professor and friend of Obama, Henry Gates, Jr., after a heated confrontation Gates had with a Cambridge police officer who was investigating a potential break-in reported at his home, resulting in Gates' arrest. Obama accused the police officer of acting stupidly before later being pressured to apologize for his premature and uninformed opinion.
Similarly, Obama created a national powder keg by wading into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by presuming the guilt of his shooter, George Zimmerman, before Zimmerman had been charged and before the facts of the case were more fully developed. He deployed the Justice Department to Sanford, Florida, which further exacerbated the problem by stoking the flames through the use of taxpayer resources to stir up public sentiment against Zimmerman and to pressure local prosecutors into bringing murder charges against Zimmerman. Many legal observers blame the President's meddling for the legal misstep of the state's prosecutors in overcharging Zimmerman from the outset of the case contrary to the evidence in the case. In many communities around the country, a defendant could never get a fair trial after the President weighs in with such strong opinions on an accused's guilt or innocence. Zimmerman was lucky to live in a community where President Obama's opinion obviously carried little weight.