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July 10, 2018

US Supreme Court holds it has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces of the United States

US Supreme Court holds it has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces of the United States
Ortiz v. United States, Docket: 16-1423, Government & Administrative Law

In addition to "Company Punishment,"* a non-judicial proceeding, the United States “court-martial system” provides for an initial judicial determination of the guilt or innocence of military personnel charged with one or more violations of the federal Code of Military Justice. If the accused is found guilty, the court levies the punishment to be imposed.**

There are four appellate courts: the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) for, respectively, the Army, Navy-Marine Corps, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. CCA decisions may be subject to review by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF). CAAF is a “court of record” composed of five civilian judges.

Keanu Ortiz, an Airman First Class, was convicted by a court-martial of possessing and distributing child pornography. The penalty imposed, two years’ imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge. Ortiz asked the CAAF to review the matter, challenging the qualification of one of its members, Colonel Martin Mitchell, to serve on the CCA panel because he had been appointed to the Court of Military Commission Review (CMCR) by the Secretary of Defense. Further, to moot a possible constitutional problem with the assignment, the President (with the Senate’s advice and consent) also appointed the Colonel Mitchell to the CMCR pursuant to §950f(b)(3).

As Judge Mitchell participated in Ortiz’s CCA appeal, Ortiz claimed that Judge Mitchell’s CMCR appointment barred his continued CCA service under both a statute and the Constitution, contending that the appointment violated §973(b)(2)(A), which provides that unless otherwise authorized by law,” an active-duty military officer “may not hold, or exercise the functions of,” certain “civil office[s]” in the federal government. Ortiz also argued that the Appointments Clause prohibits simultaneous service on the CMCR and the CCA.

The CAAF denied Ortiz's appeal.

Ultimately the Supreme Court said that it had jurisdiction to review the CAAF’s decisions, explaining that "The judicial character and constitutional pedigree of the court-martial system enable this Court, in exercising appellate jurisdiction, to review the decisions of the court sitting at its apex."

The Supreme Court's decision notes that Professor Aditya Bamzai had filed a brief amicus curiae with the Supreme Court contending that cases decided by the CAAF do not fall within Article III’s grant of appellate jurisdiction to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, citing Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, said that then Chief Justice Marshall had explained that “the essential criterion of appellate jurisdiction” is “that it revises and corrects the proceedings in a cause already instituted, and does not create that cause.”

Here, said the Supreme Court, Ortiz’s petition asks the Supreme Court to “revise and correct” the latest decision in a “cause” that began in and progressed through military justice “proceedings.”

Unless, opined the court, Chief Justice Marshall’s test implicitly exempts cases instituted in a military court, the case is now appellate. But, the court concluded, "There is no reason to make that distinction. The military justice system’s essential character is judicial. Military courts decide cases in strict accordance with a body of federal law and afford virtually the same procedural protections to service members as those given in a civilian criminal proceeding. The judgments a military tribunal renders “rest on the same basis, and are surrounded by the same considerations[, as] give conclusiveness to the judgments of other legal tribunals.”

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the court, in which Justices Roberts,  C. J., and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion and Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined., holding that the Court has appellate jurisdiction to review the CAAF’s decisions. "In exercising that jurisdiction, [the majority said] that Judge Mitchell’s simultaneous service on the CCA and the CMCR violated neither §973(b)(2)(A)’s office-holding ban nor the Constitution’s Appointments Clause" and affirmed the judgment below."

* 10 U.S. Code Chapter 47 - UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE, §815 - Art. 15. Commanding officer’s non-judicial punishment.

** See, generally, 10 U.S. Code Chapter 47, §816 - Art. 16. Courts-martial classified. See, also, New York State Military Law, Article 7 - Code of Military Justice.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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