National Partnership for Women & Families

In the News

House Bill Aims To End Demeaning Questions in Military Sexual Assault Hearings

House Bill Aims To End Demeaning Questions in Military Sexual Assault Hearings

November 14, 2013 — Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) on Wednesday introduced a bill that would help protect sexual assault survivors in the military from excessively intrusive questioning during preliminary court hearings, USA Today reports (Vanden Brook, USA Today, 11/13).

Currently, preliminary trials are heard under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. During the process, a senior officer hears from the prosecution and defense to determine if there is enough evidence for a full court-martial. Compared with civilian proceedings, the process places few restrictions on how military attorneys conduct themselves.

Last week, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a similar measure (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/6).

Rep. Speier: Questions 'Brutalize' Victims

Speier, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized current military preliminary hearings as being "used as [a] technique by the defense to so demean and brutalize the victim that they tend to drop the charges altogether."

Speier cited a case involving a female midshipman who accused three Naval Academy classmates of sexual assault. The woman was interrogated for 30 hours over several days during an Article 32 hearing. Defense attorneys asked the woman questions such as whether she wore underwear on dates and how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex.

"It is so repugnant to me as a woman and to think that the military has let this go on in plain sight for as long as it has. It is an absolute outrage," Speier said. Meehan, a former prosecutor, said the hearings have "a tremendous chilling effect on the willingness of victims to come forward."

Wider Problems

Speier added that while changing the hearings is one step to help military sexual assault survivors, her "fear is that the military is going to wave this and say, 'See, we fixed it,'" but "[t]he answer is that you fixed one component of a very broken system." She said lawmakers also need to end commanding officers' authority to decide which sexual assault cases are prosecuted. The Senate next week could debate a measure by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would take such cases out of the chain of command. Speier has offered a similar measure in the House (USA Today, 11/13).