Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Enacted pursuant to Article I of the Constitution, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), gives returning service members the right to reclaim their prior jobs with state employers and authorizes suit if those employers refuse to accommodate veterans’ service-related disabilities, 38 U.S.C. 4301. Torres, a state trooper, was called to active duty in the Army Reserves and deployed to Iraq, where he was exposed to toxic burn pits. Torres, honorably discharged, returned home with constrictive bronchitis. Torres asked his former employer to accommodate his condition by re-employing him in a different role. Texas refused. A state court held that his USERRA claims should be dismissed based on sovereign immunity.The Supreme Court reversed. By ratifying the Constitution, the states agreed their sovereignty would yield to the national power to raise and support the Armed Forces. Congress may exercise this power to authorize private damages suits against nonconsenting states, as in USERRA.The test for whether the structure of the original Constitution itself reflects a waiver of states’ immunity is whether the federal power is “complete in itself, and the states consented to the exercise of that power—in its entirety—in the plan of the Convention.” Congress’ power to build and maintain the Armed Forces fits that test. Congress has long legislated regarding military forces at the expense of state sovereignty. USERRA expressly “supersedes any State law . . . that reduces, limits, or eliminates in any manner any right or benefit provided by this chapter, including the establishment of additional prerequisites to the exercise of any such right or the receipt of any such benefit.” View "Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

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George joined the Marine Corps in 1975 without disclosing his history of schizophrenic episodes. His medical examination noted no mental disorders. George suffered an episode during training. The Marines medically discharged him. George applied for veterans’ disability benefits based on his schizophrenia, 38 U.S.C. 1110. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied his appeal from a regional office denial in 1977. In 2014, George asked the Board to revise its final decision. When the VA denies a benefits claim, that decision generally becomes “final and conclusive” after the veteran exhausts the opportunity for direct appeal. George sought collateral review under an exception allowing revision of a final benefits decision at any time on grounds of “clear and unmistakable error,” 38 U.S.C. 5109A, 7111. He claimed that the Board applied a later-invalidated regulation to deny his claim without requiring the VA to rebut the statutory presumption that he was in sound condition when he entered service.The Veterans Court, Federal Circuit, and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief. The invalidation of a VA regulation after a veteran’s benefits decision becomes final cannot support a claim for collateral relief based on clear and unmistakable error. Congress adopted the “clear and unmistakable error doctrine” developed under decades of prior agency practice. The invalidation of a prior regulation constitutes a “change in interpretation of law” under historical agency practice, not “clear and unmistakable error.” That approach is consistent with the general rule that the new interpretation of a statute can only retroactively affect decisions still open on direct review. The fact that Congress did not expressly enact the specific regulatory principle barring collateral relief for subsequent changes in interpretation does not mean that the principle did not carry over. View "George v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Social Security retirement benefits are calculated using a formula based on past earnings, 42 U.S.C. 415(a)(1)(A). Under the “windfall elimination” provision, benefits are reduced when a retiree receives a separate pension payment based on employment not subject to Social Security taxes. Pension payments exempt from the windfall reduction include those "based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service.”A “military technician (dual status),” 10 U.S.C. 10216, is a “civilian employee” assisting the National Guard. Such technicians are required to maintain National Guard membership and must wear uniforms while working. For their work as full-time civilian technicians, they receive civil-service pay. If hired before 1984, they receive Civil Service Retirement System pension payments. As part-time National Guard members, they receive military pay and pension payments from a different arm of the government.The SSA applied the windfall elimination provision to the benefits calculation for Babcock, a dual-status technician. The district court and Sixth Circuit upheld that decision, declining to apply the uniformed-services exception.The Supreme Court affirmed. Civil Service Retirement System pensions generally trigger the windfall provision. Babcock’s technician work was not service “as” a National Guard member. A condition of employment is not the same as the capacity in which one serves. The statute states: “For purposes of this section and any other provision of law,” a technician “is” a “civilian employee,” “authorized and accounted for as” a “civilian.” While working in a civilian capacity, technicians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They possess characteristically civilian rights concerning employment discrimination, workers’ compensation, disability benefits, and overtime work; technicians hired before 1984 are “civil service” members, entitled to pensions as civil servants. Babcock’s civil-service pension payments are not based on his National Guard service, for which he received separate military pension payments. View "Babcock v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a military offense, “punishable by death, may be tried and punished at any time without limitation,” 10 U.S.C. 843(a). Other military offenses are subject to a five-year statute of limitations. Three military service members, each convicted of rape at a time when the UCMJ provided that rape could be “punished by death” argued that the five-year limitations period barred their prosecutions because the Supreme Court held in 1977 (Coker v. Georgia) that the Eighth Amendment forbids a death sentence for the rape of an adult woman.Reversing the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the Supreme Court held that the prosecutions were timely. The UCMJ is a uniform code. The most natural place to determine whether rape was “punishable by death” within the meaning of section 843(a) is section 920’s directive that rape could be “punished by death,” regardless of the UCMJ’s separate prohibition on “cruel or unusual punishment.” If “punishable by death” requires consideration of all applicable law, the deadline for filing rape charges would be unclear. That deadline would depend on an unresolved constitutional question about Coker’s application to military prosecutions, on "evolving standards of decency” under the Eighth Amendment, and on whether UCMJ section 855 independently prohibits a death sentence for rape. The ends served by statutes of limitations differ from those served by the Eighth Amendment or UCMJ 855. Factors legislators may find important in setting a limitations period—such as the difficulty of gathering evidence and mounting a prosecution—play no part in an Eighth Amendment analysis. View "United States v. Briggs" on Justia Law

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Manufacturers produced equipment for three Navy ships. The equipment required asbestos insulation or asbestos parts to function as intended, but the manufacturers did not always incorporate the asbestos into their products, so the Navy later added the asbestos. Two Navy veterans, exposed to asbestos on the ships, developed cancer. They sued the manufacturers. The manufacturers argued that they should not be liable for harms caused by later-added third-party parts.The Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit in rejecting summary judgment for the manufacturers. The Court adopted a rule between the “foreseeability” approach and the “bare-metal defense,” that is "especially appropriate in the context of maritime law, which has always recognized a ‘special solicitude for the welfare’ of sailors." Requiring a warning in these circumstances will not impose a significant burden on manufacturers, who already have a duty to warn of the dangers of their own products. A manufacturer must provide a warning only when it knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses and has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger. The rule applies only if the manufacturer directs that the part be incorporated; the manufacturer makes the product with a part that the manufacturer knows will require replacement with a similar part; or a product would be useless without the part. View "Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries" on Justia Law