WASHINGTON (CN) — Reinstating three convictions, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that a five-year statute of limitations does not apply to the prosecution of military rapes that occurred before 2006.
In an 8-0 decision in U.S. v. Briggs – a case stemming from the rape conviction of U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Michael Briggs and later consolidated with two other rape cases involving other members of the Air Force – the justices found the military code weighed “heavily in favor of the government’s interpretation” that it can prosecute rape claims going back decades.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling as the case was argued in October, before her confirmation.
Michael Briggs was sentenced to five years in prison in 2014 for the 2005 rape of a woman. For years, the U.S. Military Code has placed no statute of limitations on the lodging of rape claims as the crime is one punishable by death. Congress even went so far as to amend the military code in 2006 to remove all time limits for prosecution.
But in 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces’ ruling in U.S. v. Mangahas went against longstanding precedent around rape convictions, highlighting a new statute of limitations that allows prosecution for rapes that occurred between 1986 and 2006 only if it was discovered and charged within five years.
Executing a person convicted of rape would be a violation of the military code’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the appeals court held in the Mangahas ruling. That decision eventually led to Briggs’ conviction being overturned, along with those of U.S. Air Force servicemembers Richard Collins and Humphrey Daniels.
At oral arguments, acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall said that regardless of the military court’s ruling, Congress clearly intended in 2006 to remove all statute of limitations for military rape. At the time, Justice Elena Kagan explored whether ambiguity existed in the military code.
“It says ‘any offense punishable by death’ but it doesn’t say punishable under what law,” she said. “Is it under the code alone or all federal statutory law or under the Constitution as well? It just doesn’t say.”
Justice Samuel Alito picked up on this thread in Thursday’s nine-page opinion, writing the government interprets “punishable” in the code as “as something of a term of art that is defined by the specification of the punishments set out in the penalty provisions.” It is the more persuasive argument, he said.
“The meaning of a statement often turns on the context in which it is made, and that is no less true of statutory language,” Alito wrote. “And in these cases, context is determinative.”
He said it was unlikely that Congress intended to cause confusion over prosecution deadlines for rape cases or how much time victims can spend wrestling with the decision to face their attacker in open court.
“Among other things, the government argues that a rape committed by a service member may cause special damage by critically undermining unit cohesion and discipline and that, in some circumstances, the crime may have serious international implications,” Alito wrote. “That also appears to have been the view of Congress and the executive.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote separately to concur in the court’s judgment but questioned whether it should have taken up the case at all.
“I continue to think this court lacks jurisdiction to hear appeals directly from the CAAF,” he wrote, referring to the military court. “But a majority of the court believes we have jurisdiction, and I agree with the court’s decision on the merits. I therefore join the court’s opinion.”
The Defense Department reported in April that sexual assault in the military jumped up 3% in 2019 compared to 2018. There were 7,825 reports of rape or sexual assault in the military last year. Anonymous disclosures of rape that do not trigger an official investigation by military authorities went up 17% in 2019 and sexual harassment claims increased by 10%.
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