How should the armed services handle such claims?
Only 20 years old, Vanessa Guillen [pronounced GEE-yen], an Army Private First Class stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, was murdered in April by a fellow military member who Guillen was likely about to formally accuse of sexual harassment. She had been missing for more than two months by the time her remains were discovered. The suspected murderer committed suicide as law enforcement closed in on him for apprehension.
The Army’s internal investigation of Guillen’s case interviewed hundreds of people but found no credible evidence of sexual harassment. Nevertheless,the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen went viral as a military-specific version of the famous #MeToo hashtag, in which people shared their personal stories of sexual harassment or sexual assault through social media to destigamtize such experiences.
Guillén’s story received much attention, including President Donald Trump meeting with her family. It also shined a light on what many considered outmoded and ineffective military policies towards sexual offenses.
What the legislation does
The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would institute several reforms, including:
- Explicitly listing sexual harassment as a crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the official constitution for military law. While rape and sexual assault are both listed, sexual harassment is not, although it could still be potentially prosecuted under other vaguer provisions.
- Requiring the Secretary of Defense to establish a process by which a servicemember can lodge a sexual harassment compliant confidentially.
- Moving legal decisions on whether to prosecute a sexual offense outside of the existing military chain of command, instead to an Office of Special Prosecutor established within each branch — including the creation of such an office in any branch where it does not yet exist.
The House version was introduced on September 16 as bill number H.R. 8270, by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA14). The Senate version was introduced the same day as bill number S. 4600, by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation makes badly-needed changes to a military culture and legal system that too often fails accusers and survivors.
“Military leadership has repeatedly failed to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault, and violent crime at Fort Hood, one of the worst sites for attacks according to Army officials, and throughout the armed forces,” Rep. Speier said in a press release. “The endless cycle of harassment, assault, and retaliation for those who speak out reveals the deep roots of a toxic culture we must eradicate so that survivors are taken seriously and treated with respect, and assailants are held accountable.”
“Vanessa Guillen’s story makes painfully clear the need for a better response to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military,” Sen. Hirono said in a separate press release. “The [legislation] knocks down barriers to reporting sexual harassment and sexual assault and directly addresses the culture that protects the perpetrators of these crimes. It’s time to make a system that respects and protects survivors.”
What opponents say
While GovTrack Insider was unable to find any statements of opposition to the legislation in its entirety, some have criticized individual provisions, such as the proposal removal of commanders’ decision only about whether to prosecute sexual offenses.
“If the purported conflict of interest exists for sexual offenses, it exists for all other crimes as well,” former Air Force attorney and Southwestern Law School professor Rachel E. VanLandingham told the Washington Post. “The root of the issue is if commanders should have prosecutorial discretion at all.”
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 180 bipartisan cosponsors: 154 Democrats and 26 Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the House Armed Services Committee.
The Senate version has attracted three cosponsors, all Democrats. It’s unclear why the upper chamber’s cosponsorship is both so much smaller and so partisan than the House’s. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
President Trump announced his tentative support for the not-yet-introduced legislation during a White House meeting with the Guillén family in July. “Well, you have our support, and we’re working on it already, as you know, and we won’t stop,” Trump said. “And hopefully something very positive will come out in honor of your sister. Okay? And your daughter.”