Solorio v. United States

 United States Supreme Court

483 U.S. 435, 107 S.Ct. 2924, 97 L.Ed.2d 364 (1987)

 

In this case, the United States Supreme Court considers whether the jurisdiction of a court-martial to try a member of the Armed Forces depends on the “service connection” of the offense charged.

 

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            ... While Petitioner Richard Solorio was on active duty in the Seventeenth Coast Guard District in Juneau, Alaska, he sexually abused two young daughters of fellow coast guardsmen. Petitioner engaged in this abuse over a 2-year period until he was transferred by the Coast Guard to Governors Island, New York. Coast Guard authorities learned of the Alaska crimes only after petitioner’s transfer, and investigation revealed that he had later committed similar sexual abuse offenses while stationed in New York. The Governors Island commander convened a general court-martial to try petitioner for crimes alleged to have occurred in Alaska and New York.

 

There is no “base” or “post” where Coast Guard personnel live and work in Juneau. Consequently, nearly all Coast Guard military personnel reside in the civilian community. Petitioner’s Alaska offenses were committed in his privately owned home, and the fathers of the 10- to 12-year old victims in Alaska were active duty members of the Coast Guard assigned to the same command as petitioner. Petitioner’s New York offenses also involved daughters of fellow coast guardsmen, but were committed in Government quarters on the Governors Island base.

 

            After the general court-martial was convened in New York, petitioner moved to dismiss the charges for crimes committed in Alaska on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction under this Court’s decisions in O’Callahan v. Parker [1969] and Relford v. Commandant [1971]. Ruling that the Alaska offenses were not sufficiently “service connected” to be tried in the military criminal justice system, the court-martial judge granted the motion to dismiss. The government appealed the dismissal of the charges to the United States Coast Guard Court of Military Review, which reversed the trial judge’s order and reinstated the charges. ...

 

            The United States Court of Military Appeals affirmed the Court of Military Review, concluding that the Alaska offenses were service connected within the meaning of O’Callahan and Relford. ... Stating that “not every off-base offense against a service member’s dependent is service-connected,” the court reasoned that “sex offenses against young children ... have a continuing effect on the victims and their families and ultimately on the morale of any military unit or organization to which the family member is assigned.” ... In reaching its holding, the court also weighed a number of other factors, including: the interest of Alaska civilian officials in prosecuting petitioner; the hardship on the victims, who had moved from Alaska, that would result if they were called to testify both at a civilian trial in Alaska and at the military proceeding in New York; and the benefits to petitioner and the Coast Guard from trying the Alaska and New York offenses together. This Court subsequently granted certiorari. ...

 

            The Constitution grants to Congress the power “[t]o make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” ... Exercising this authority, Congress has empowered courts-martial to try servicemen for the crimes proscribed by the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice]. ... The Alaska offenses with which petitioner was charged are each described in the UCMJ. Thus it is not disputed that the court-martial convened in New York possessed the statutory authority to try petitioner on the Alaska child abuse specifications.

 

            In an unbroken line of decisions from 1866 to 1960, this Court interpreted the Constitution as conditioning the proper exercise of court-martial jurisdiction over an offense on one factor: the military status of the accused. ...

 

            In 1969, the Court in O’Callahan v. Parker departed from the military status test and announced the “new constitutional principle” that a military tribunal may not try a serviceman charged with a crime that has no service connection. ... Applying this principle, the O’Callahan Court held that a serviceman’s off-base sexual assault on a civilian with no connection with the military could not be tried by court-martial. On reexamination of O’Callahan, we have decided that the service connection test announced in that decision should be abandoned.

 

            The constitutional grant of power to Congress to regulate the Armed Forces, Art I, §8, cl 14, appears in the same section as do the provisions granting Congress authority, inter alia, to regulate commerce among the several States, to coin money, and to declare war. On its face there is no indication that the grant of power in Clause 14 was any less plenary than the grants of other authority to Congress in the same section. Whatever doubts there might be about the extent of Congress’ power under Clause 14 to make rules for the “Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces,” that power surely embraces the authority to regulate the conduct of persons who are actually members of the armed services. ...

 

            The notion that civil courts are “ill-equipped” to establish policies regarding matters of military concern is substantiated by experience under the service connection approach. ... In his O’Callahan dissent, Justice Harlan forecasted that “the infinite permutations of possibly relevant factors are bound to create confusion and proliferate litigation over the [court-martial] jurisdiction issue.” ... In fact, within two years after O’Callahan, this Court found it necessary to expound on the meaning of the decision, enumerating a myriad of factors for courts to weigh in determining whether an offense is service connected. Yet the service connection approach ... has proven confusing and difficult for military courts to apply.

 

            Since O’Callahan and Relford, military courts have identified numerous categories of offenses requiring specialized analysis of the service connection requirement. For example, the courts have highlighted subtle distinctions among offenses committed on a military base, offenses committed off-base, offenses arising from events occurring both on and off a base, and offenses committed on or near the boundaries of a base. Much time and energy has also been expended in litigation over other jurisdictional factors, such as the status of the victim of the crime, and the results are difficult to reconcile. The confusion created by the complexity of the service connection requirement, however, is perhaps best illustrated in the area of off-base drug offenses. Soon after O’Callahan, the Court of Military Appeals held that drug offenses were of such “special military significance” that their trial by court-martial was unaffected by the decision. ... Nevertheless, the court has changed its position on the issue no less than two times since [1969], each time basing its decision on O’Callahan. ...

 

            When considered together with the doubtful foundations of O’Callahan, the confusion wrought by the decision leads us to conclude that we should read Clause 14 in accord with the plain meaning of its language as we did in the many years before O’Callahan was decided. That case’s novel approach to court-martial jurisdiction must bow “to the lessons of experience and the force of better reasoning.” ... We therefore hold that the requirements of the Constitution are not violated where, as here, a court-martial is convened to try a serviceman who was a member of the armed services at the time of the offense charged. ...

 

           

Justice Stevens, concurring in the judgment. ...

 

Justice Marshall ... [joined by Justices Brennan and Blackmun], dissenting.

 

            O’Callahan v. Parker remains correct and workable today. The Court nonetheless insists on reopening a question which was finally and properly resolved in 1969. In doing so, it shows a blatant disregard for principles of stare decisis, and makes more dubious the presumption “that bedrock principles are founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.” ... This in turn undermines “the integrity of our constitutional system of government, both in appearance and in fact.” ...

 

            ... Today’s decision deprives our military personnel of procedural protections that are constitutionally mandated in trials for purely civilian offenses. The Court’s action today reflects contempt, both for the members of our Armed Forces and for the constitutional safeguards intended to protect us all. I dissent.