The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously resumed rape convictions of three former soldiers in the United States against Briggs and two consolidated cases. The nine-page 8-0 ruling, in which Justice Samuel Alito writes for the court and Justice Amy Coney Barrett does not attend, overturns the U.S. Court of Appeal rulings for the Armed Forces, which barred the three law enforcement actions on their finding for a five-year statute of limitations military rape between 1986 and 2006.
By interpreting the Uniform Code of Military Justice to exclude rape prosecutions from any statute of limitations, the court could not determine whether the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for military rape. Because the UCMJ ruled that there is no statute of limitations on crimes that “carry death” and because the appeals court ruled that the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in the Coker v Georgia case carried out the death penalty in rape cases Adult bans that have no effect Murder there was a possibility that the court had to reach the merits of the constitutional question.
The issue of legal interpretation, which proved crucial in these cases, arose because of the language in Articles 43 (a) and 120 (a) of the UCMJ. Between 1986 and 2006, Article 43 (a) stipulated that a “fatal offense” could be brought to justice “at any time without restriction”. During this period, Article 120 (a) stated that rape “may be punishable by death.” The government argued that the combination of these two provisions meant that during that 20 year period when Michael Briggs, Richard Collins and Humphrey Daniels committed their crimes, there was no statute of limitations on military rape. (In 2006, the UCMJ was amended to specifically remove statute of limitations for rape, child rape, and sexual assault.)
The three soldiers argued, and the lower court agreed, that the UCMJ and Coker teamwork resulted in the Code’s general five-year statute of limitations on rape between 1986 and 2006. Coker believed that non-homicidal rape of adults could not be punished by the death penalty. Since the rapes in the three cases in question involved all adult victims, Coker prohibited the death penalty and did not make these crimes “punishable by death”. This, in turn, meant the standard five-year statute of limitations in the UCMJ applied, the soldiers argued. According to this theory, all three law enforcement actions were statute-barred because they occurred more than five years after the rapes.
While Alito found that there were “reasonable arguments on both sides”, his opinion for the court ultimately concurred with the government’s argument that there is no statute of limitations under Article 43 (a) of the UCMJ for crimes that “involve death can be punished. it means to be punished with death as stated in other parts of the UCMJ, rather than death under applicable laws outside of the UCMJ, such as the eighth amendment.
There were three reasons for preferring the government’s interpretation, wrote Alito.
First, the UCMJ is a “unified code” that “reformed and modernized the old system of military justice from top to bottom”. Therefore, it should be understood that the statute of limitations will be construed with reference to other parts of the UCMJ instead of laws outside the UCMJ.
Second, clarity is one of the goals of any statute of limitations, Alito explained. However, if Congress had made the statute of limitations dependent on future Supreme Court rulings on the eighth amendment – which, in turn, could depend on “evolving standards of decency” in society – Congress could not have had that clarity at the time of going into effect. The court has never considered a case asking whether military rape was punishable by the death penalty, and it was “foreseeable” that the court would not reconsider the statute of limitations issue until someone had passed after five years had been convicted of rape. It is unlikely that Congress would bring the statute of limitations into such an unclear, indefinite state, wrote Alito.
Third, the factors underlying the statute of limitations are different from the factors underlying the eighth amendment case law. In creating a statute of limitations, a legislator primarily addresses the difficulty of producing evidence and prosecuting. However, the case law of the Cruel and Unusual Penalty Clause does not address any of these factors. Whether the clause is about developing standards of social decency, as some judges would, or the original intent of the writers as others would, none of these ideas overlap with the concerns that spark a statute of limitations .
In confirming the government’s legal interpretative argument, the court rejected the “common meaning” argument put forward by Briggs, Collins and Daniels. Citing Webster’s Dictionary, the three soldiers asserted in their letter of merit that “the reasonable meaning of the term” punishable “is” any penalty that may be imposed. “Then, citing an opinion from the Florida Supreme Court, they alleged that” the sentence “punishable by death” is susceptible to only one construction – a crime for which the death penalty can be imposed. “
Alito admitted that this argument “is initially supported in contemporary dictionary definitions of the term“ punishable ”. But on inspection, “he continued,” definitions shed little light on the dispute because they largely re-raise the question the parties are arguing about: under what law can be punished? “The answer to that question, the court concluded, was the UCMJ itself, not laws outside the UCMJ.
Briggs, Collins and Daniels actually argued that their position was supported by another provision within the UCMJ. Article 55 of the UCMJ prohibits courts-martial from imposing “cruel or unusual sentences”. The Armed Forces Court of Appeal ruled that in Article 55, “Congress intended to provide as much protection as the eighth amendment provides”. Given that Coker, even when “punished with death” only refers to other provisions of the UCMJ, the result is that military rape cannot be punished with death, the soldiers claimed in both their short and theirs hearing.
The court seemed to evade this argument. Even if Article 55 prohibits the death penalty, the court stated, Article 120 (a) makes the use of the phrase “punishable by death” the more natural reference for Article 43 (a). Later in the statement, the court found that the soldiers “argue that Article 55 self-enforces Coker’s rule to the military, while the government claims that Article 55 cannot reasonably be read to prohibit punishment, which expressly authorizes another provision of the UCMJ. “The court did not resolve the dispute further.
Evan Lee, Opinion Analysis: No Statute of Limitations on Military Rape,
SCOTUSblog (December 11, 2020, 2:00 p.m.), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/12/opinion-analysis-no-statute-of-limitations-for-military-rape/