Overview of disqualification – “bridging the gap” sessions:
The US Army Trial Judiciary Standard Operating Procedure encourages military judges to conduct a “post-trial critique” one-on-one with counsel after trial to improve trial skills. This practice can be problematic and judges should limit such discussions to trial advocacy tips as opposed to substantive matters. See United States v. Copening, 32 M.J. 512 (A.C.M.R. 1990) (suggesting “Bridging the Gap” may need reevaluation in light of issues arising concerning discussions by trial judges of legal issues that may come before them in future cases; ex parte discussions with counsel about the conduct of the trial; and discussions with counsel before the trial is final about rulings in the case).
Improper sentencing considerations
United States v. McNutt, 62 M.J. 16 (C.A.A.F. 2005). Military judge revealed during the “Bridging the Gap” session that he framed accused’s sentence to take into account good time credit. Military judge sentenced the accused to seventy days with the idea that the accused would receive ten days good time credit and would serve sixty days of confinement. CAAF reversed the sentence, finding the military judge improperly considered the collateral administrative effect of good time credit. “Sentence determinations should be based on the facts before the military judge and not on the possibility that [the accused] may serve less time than he was sentenced to based on the Army’s policy.”
- Levels of courts-martial
- Military Judges
- Disqualification – conduct of trial & judicial advocacy
- Disqualification – “bridging the gap” sessions
- Expanded Powers and Remedial Action
- Military judge disqualification – ex parte communications conduct outside of court
- Military judge disqualification – judicial exposure
- Court-martial personnel
Improper comments about the accused
United States v. Hayes, NMCCA 200600910, 2010 WL 4249518 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. Oct. 28, 2010). Male accused pled guilty to indecent acts with another male in the barracks. Military judge made comments during a post-trial “bridging the gap” session with counsel that suggested a bias against homosexual conduct. In a unanimous decision, the N-MCCA found the military judge’s comments created an appearance of bias that mandated disqualification; the court affirmed the findings and set aside the accused’s sentence. Based on a DuBay hearing convened, the court found the following about the military judge’s actions at trial and during “Bridging the Gap”:
Assisting trial counsel
The military judge reviewed the stipulation of fact, which read that the sexual contact between the accused and the other male was consensual. The military judge then asked trial counsel if the victim might contradict the stipulation of fact when he testified at sentencing. After a “lengthy” discussion with counsel, military judge told trial counsel that he would not allow the Government to go “beyond” the facts in the stipulation of fact, specifically that the trial counsel could not present evidence that the sexual interaction was non-consensual. Government then withdrew from the stipulation and the defense counsel noted on the record that both of the counsel and the accused had agreed to the stipulation and signed it, and that trial counsel only withdrew after being “prompted” by the military judge. The military judge responded he only noted a possible conflict and notified the parties. The accused pled guilty and the victim testified during sentencing that he did not consent to their sexual interaction.
“Bridging the Gap” comments
During a post-trial “Bridging the Gap” session, the military judge made the following comments relevant to the case: (1) “Marines should not be required to live in the barracks with people like Seaman Hayes.”; (2) “[H]omosexuality has no place in our Armed Forces.”; (3) There is a rational basis for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy and “homosexual acts are incompatible with the service.”; (4) Regarding DADT, homosexual conduct presents leadership challenges as males are less cautious than females, so homosexual males have a “continuing opportunity” to take advantage of other males. Relying on R.C.M. 902(a), which requires recusal when the military judge’s impartiality “might reasonably be questioned,” the court noted the appearance of bias was sufficient to warrant judicial disqualification.
Military judge commented about “people like Seaman Hayes” while making other comments that homosexuality is incompatible with “our Armed Forces.” The N-MCCA reasoned the judge’s use of terms like “our” and “people like” – coupled with his comments about the possible increased rate of sexual assaults if homosexual Sailors and Marines lived in the barracks – would cause a reasonable listener to believe the judge did not properly “compartmentalize” his beliefs when adjudging the sentence. Specifically, comments suggest the military judge believed punishment in this case must include a punitive discharge. “The perception that a military judge has pre-determined a certain punishment for a certain act or crime is, simply, unacceptable.”
Suggestions for military judge
For military judges who elect to conduct “Bridging the Gap” sessions, consider the following:
- Never conduct ex parte.
- Avoid giving substantive advice (e.g., “trial counsel, here is how you lay the foundation for that exhibit that I helped you admit;” or “here’s how you properly select a panel.”).
- Always bear in mind the trial may not be truly “over.” United States v. Holt, 46 M.J. 853 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. 1997), aff’d, 52 M.J. 173 (C.A.A.F. 1999) (suggesting that, where trial judge provides post-trial “practice pointers” to counsel prior to the cases being finalized, recusal would be mandated if the case were sent back for some sort of rehearing).