President Biden signed an executive order Friday that takes decisions about whether to prosecute certain major crimes in the military, including sexual assault, out of the chain of command and assigns them to independent military attorneys.
The changes come after years of pressure on the military from members of Congress and victims’ advocates to take commanders — who may have a bias in whether a case goes forward — out of prosecutorial decisions for major crimes, especially in cases of sexual assault.
Congress passed the reforms in the annual defense bill in December 2021, but any changes to the manual regarding the court martial process require the president’s signature on an executive order.
This order changes the Uniform Code of Military Justice and transfers the decision to prosecute from commanders to specialized independent military prosecutors in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, murder and other serious crimes, senior administration officials told reporters this week.
These changes represent the most significant transformation of the military justice system since the Uniform Code of Military Justice was established in 1950, according to the officials.
By Dec. 27, each military service will have an operational office of special trial counsel staffed by military attorneys to handle the covered offenses. The services have already begun appointing one-star generals and admirals to head those offices and hiring specialized staff.
The recommendation to take the authority out of the chain of command was one of more than 80 recommendations a commission on sexual assault in the military made in 2021 to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He created the panel on his first full day in office, in order to address a problem that continues to taint the military.
“Under President Biden’s leadership and through today’s Executive Order, the Department of Defense will enact long-needed reforms to the military justice system, transforming how DoD responds to allegations of sexual assault and related crimes,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in a statement.