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In Order to Form a More Perfect Court: A Quantitative Measure of the Military’s Highest Court’s Success as a Court of Last Resort

In Order to Form a More Perfect Court: A Quantitative Measure of the Military’s Highest Court’s Success as a Court of Last Resort

Rodrigo M. Caruço

American military criminal law does not often receive much attention outside the military and its law journals. But for the first time in over three decades, Congress will debate sweeping reforms to the United States military’s legal system proposed by the Department of Defense (DoD) that, if enacted, would further civilianize the military’s criminal code.[1] Just a few years ago, the acclaimed documentary The Invisible War brought the issue of sexual assault in the U.S. military to the forefront of national attention.[2] This film prompted sustained attacks by certain members of Congress regarding how the military prosecutes sexual assault cases, as well as the creation of numerous panels to study different aspects of the military’s approach to sexual assault investigation and prosecution.[3] On its own initiative, the DoD took a broader view and initiated a comprehensive review of the entire military legal system.[4] The result of this review is the DoD-proposed Military Justice Act of 2016, a wide-ranging proposal that substantially civilianizes a legal system already radically civilianized compared to its original enactment in 1775.[5] However, one institution critical to the military’s legal system will escape all scrutiny by both Congress and the DoD—its highest court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF). This article closes that gap.

Though an Article I court, CAAF is an independent judicial body.[6] Its budget flows through the DoD, but Congress has made it clear that CAAF is located within the DoD “for administrative purposes only . . . .”[7] Like all judicial bodies, it should benefit from ongoing scrutiny. Its early judges agreed and invited such scrutiny.[8] Though the military services law review journals and numerous civilian journals publish works analyzing specific aspects of military law, few, if any, include structural analyses of the military’s appellate institutions generally, and CAAF specifically.[9] This type of study has not occurred since the 1970s.[10] Thus, CAAF, and consequently military law, has evolved over the last 50 or so years without much scrutiny of its role within the military justice system and whether its conduct is consistent with its role. No comprehensive understanding of the military justice system is complete without a better understanding of its highest court.

This article attempts to further the understanding of CAAF’s role in the military justice system by examining CAAF’s effectiveness as the court of last resort within this system. This is accomplished by answering a series of questions. First, what is a court of last resort? Second, is CAAF viewed as a court of last resort in the military judicial hierarchy, or is it viewed as the first real intermediate appellate court, with the service courts acting as mere reviewing agencies? Third, if CAAF is viewed as a court of last resort, does it act like one?

This article concludes that CAAF is a court of last resort that, far too often, acts as an intermediate error-correction court. This conclusion raises both concerns and opportunities for a legal system facing ongoing scrutiny over its legitimacy. Each of the questions presented above are answered in order. Part I introduces the role of a court of last resort in a judicial system. Courts of last resort in a two-tiered system primarily focus on declaring what the law is, not error correction. This role is concerned with the development of the law. Error correction is the primary task of intermediate courts.[11] Part II turns the focus to the perceptions of CAAF, perceptions by both the Supreme Court of the United States (Court) and CAAF itself. Even during periods in which the Court expressed grave concern over the legitimacy and competency of the military justice system, it has always viewed CAAF as the court of last resort within that system.[12] Likewise, CAAF has always asserted itself as the court of last resort in the military justice system.[13] Though CAAF expressed this view less in recent years, it has never retreated from its earlier declarations that it was the military’s supreme court.[14]

Part III begins the inquiry into whether CAAF acts like a court of last resort describing the methodology used to obtain, review, and classify the relevant data. The sample size consisted of each published decision from four select terms: 1951–52, 1968–69, 1994–95, and 2014–15. The first three selected terms followed the enactment of legislation that specifically intended to clarify CAAF’s status as an independent and important federal court. Presumptively, these terms transpired when CAAF was most aware of its enhanced prestige. The 2014–15 term represents CAAF’s most recent full term, thus presenting the opportunity to examine its recent conduct. Based on the criteria established in Part I, each decision in these terms was given one of ten codes to classify it as either an error correction decision or a declaration of law. Nine of the codes mark the nine bases for granting review common amongst courts of last resort. The tenth code marks the decision as one of error correction. In addition to the first three terms, the Court’s 2014–15 term was reviewed and coded for validation. Proper coding should result in a high total number, indicating more declaration decisions by the Court.

Part IV analyzes the results of this examination. It concludes that each term contained an extraordinary number of error correction decisions, at times making up nearly 90% of all decisions in a given term. Furthermore, when CAAF does issue a law declaration decision, thus acting as a court of last resort, it often does not frame the issues or address them in a manner one would expect from such a court. The discussion in Part IV offers some initial potential explanations, which ultimately narrow down the question to whether CAAF understands its role, and if it is properly served by its lower courts and appellate counsel. Part V offers a procedural and substantive framework for approaching petitions for review and subsequent decisions based on the available data. This includes suggesting CAAF make clear when it is conducting error correction and when it is conducting law declaration—and why the distinction is important. Finally, this article concludes with a call for examination of the historically high level of error correction decisions issued by CAAF.

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[1] See, e.g., Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013, S. 967, 113 Cong. (2013) (providing that prosecution determinations in sexual assault cases cannot be made by commanding officers).

[2] The Invisible War (Chain Camera Pictures 2012).   

[3] Senator Kristin Gillibrand, D-NY, first introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013, which sought to remove the authority to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases from military commanders and place that authority in senior attorneys outside the chain of command. S. 967. Sen. Gillibrand’s bill did not make it out of committee, but the substantial interest she generated had an impact. The subsequent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) created two panels focused on the prosecution of sexual assault cases. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, Pub. L. No. 112-239, § 576, 126 Stat. 1632, 1758–62 (2013). The charter of the Judicial Proceedings Since Fiscal Year 2012 Amendments Panel (Judicial Proceedings Panel) directed its membership to review judicial proceedings in such cases for the purpose of gathering statistics, determining trends, and making recommendations on improving military judicial proceedings. The Judicial Proceedings Since Fiscal Year 2012 Amendments Panel, Charter 1–3 (2012). In addition, the charter of the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel (Response Systems Panel) directed its members to investigate “the systems used to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate . . . .” sexual assault and related offenses. Response Sys. to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, Charter 1 (2013). Part of this directive included investigating whether military commanders should retain their authority in the military legal system, known as the military justice system. Id. at 1. The panel concluded they should. Carl Levin, et al., Report of the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crime Panel 6–7, 22–23, 36–37, 161–71, 173–74 (2014). Partly in response, Sen. Gillibrand re-introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act. Military Justice Improvement Act of 2014, S. 2992, 113th Cong. (2014). It fell a few votes short in a cloture vote, 55-45. On the Cloture Motion S. 1752, GovTrack, (last visited Nov. 22, 2016).

[4] During the same period that the NDAA directed the establishment of the Judicial Proceedings Panel and the Response Systems Panel, the DoD established the Military Justice Review Group (MJRG) to perform a comprehensive review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), and the applicable service regulations. Memorandum from the Secretary of Defense on a Comprehensive Review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to Secretaries of the Military Departments, et al. (Oct. 18, 2013), The last such review occurred in 1983, with many piecemeal amendments since then. Id. The MJRG conducted hearings and received information for two years; its proposals then underwent approximately a month of internal DoD review. See Military Justice Review Group, Dep’t of Defense, (last visited Nov. 22, 2016) (providing documents related to the DoD’s review of the military justice system). Subsequently, the DoD proposed the Military Justice Act of 2016 on December 28, 2015, based on the MJRG’s initial report. Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Def., Department of Defense Forwards to Congress Proposed Changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Dec. 28, 2015),

[5] Bryan Koenig, DOD Proposes ‘First Comprehensive’ UCMJ Update in 30 Years, Law360 (Jan. 4, 2016),

[6] In its report, the MJRG stated that “[i]n view of the judicial independence of the Court, the Department of Defense, as a matter of policy, typically has deferred to the Court with respect to initiating any legislative proposal that might be necessary in the interests of judicial administration.” Military Justice Review Group, Report of the Military Justice Review Group, Part: 1: UCMJ Recommendations 1020 (Dec. 22, 2015),

[7] 10 U.S.C. § 941 (2012).

[8] Robert E. Quinn, The Court’s Responsibility, 6 Vand. L. Rev. 161, 162 (1953). Chief Judge Quinn eagerly welcomed scrutiny: “It is my hope that the bar, individually and through its legal journals, will follow closely the work of this Court. They can perform a most valuable function in weighing individual cases against the dichotomatic concept of military justice and tell the public, the services and us, the judges, whether we are performing properly our task of enunciating principles worthy of existence in this relatively new field of law.” Id.

[9] See, e.g., Eugene R. Fidell, Is There a Crisis in Military Appellate Justice?, 12 Roger Williams U. L. Rev. 820, 820 (2007) (“The highest court of the jurisdiction — The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces — is turning out careful, scholarly opinions that are easily on par with the work of the geographical circuits.”); Jonathan Lurie, Presidential Preferences and Aspiring Appointees: Selections to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals 1951-1968, 29 Wake Forest L. Rev. 521 (1994) (exploring the politicized nature of presidential appointments to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals); Scott L. Silliman, The Supreme Court and Its Impact on the Court of Military Appeals, 18 A.F. L. Rev. 81, 82 (1976) (considering the Court of Military Appeals’ status within the military justice system).

[10] See, e.g., Daniel H. Benson, The United States Court of Military Appeals, 3 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 1, 2 (1971) (describing the structure of CAAF); John S. Cooke, The United States Court of Military Appeals, 1975-1977: Judicializing the Military Justice System, 76 Mil. L. Rev. 43, 44 (1977) (discussing the effects of transforming the military justice system during the late 1970s); John T. Willis, The United States Court of Military Appeals: Its Origin, Operation and Future, 55 Mil. L. Rev. 39 (1972) (providing a history of the Court of Military Appeals and its role); John T. Willis, The Constitution, The United States Court of Military Appeals and the Future, 57 Mil. L. Rev. 27, 27 (1972) (examining the decisions and structure of the Court of Military Appeals), John T. Willis, The United States Court of Military Appeals – “Born Again”, 52 Ind. L.J. 151, 153 (1976) (discussing precedent-breaking decisions, supervisory review and civilianization by the Court of Military Appeals).

[11] To be fair, there is some discussion that this distinction is not so clear; courts of last resort and intermediate courts routinely engage in a two-way communication in the law development function. See, e.g., Doni Gewirtzman, Lower Court Constitutionalism: Circuit Court Discretion in a Complex Adaptive System, 61 Am. U. L. Rev. 457, 462, 464 (2012) (arguing the circuit courts’ role is to maintain stability and help evolve the judicial system); Evan H. Caminker, Precedent and Prediction: The Forward-Looking Aspects of Inferior Court Decisionmaking, 73 Tex. L. Rev. 1, 7–8 (1994) (comparing and contrasting two models of behavior in inferior courts, namely (1) deference to existing superior court precedents and (2) predictions of future superior court rulings). However, this article structures the roles of each level in accordance with the American Bar Association’s Standards Relating to Court Organization. See Gerald B. Cope, Jr., Discretionary Review of the Decisions of Intermediate Appellate Courts: A Comparison of Florida’s System with Those of the Other States and the Federal System, 45 Fla. L. Rev. 21, 27 (1993) (citing Standards Relating to Court Org. § 1.13 commentary at 39–40 (1990)).

[12] Silliman, supra note 9, at 82.

[13] Id. at 89–91.

[14] Id. at 91.

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