Lawmakers push controversial military trial rights bill through to governor

By: - March 17, 2023 7:00 am

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, speaks in favor of a controversial Indiana National Guard bill on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

The Indiana Senate on Thursday passed a much-disputed proposal barring Indiana National Guard members from demanding a military trial — or court-martial — in lieu of non-judicial punishment.

House Bill 1076 now goes to Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Across hours of committee testimony and floor discussions, proponents have argued that the guard doesn’t have the resources for unnecessary legal proceedings, and that members could take advantage of that to stall punishment. Opponents — including numerous veterans — worry members won’t get a fair shake before a neutral arbiter and have said the state should kick in more resources instead.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis. (Courtesy Indiana Senate Republicans)

“To allow those kinds of petty offenses to then be asked for a court-martial, when you know that we do not have a courtroom, we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the resources to do that [trial], you are impeding the good order and care of the military,” Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said Thursday.

Freeman, the Senate sponsor, emphasized that if members and their immediate superiors don’t get along, members can appeal punishments upward within the chain of command. He said members could even write letters to the guard’s leader asking for review.

He and others focused on minor offense, from being late to duty to a sloppy uniform. Non-judicial punishment can involve a variety of options, including a reprimand, loss of pay or rank, but not incarceration.

Some Democrats pushed back.

The bill “doesn’t allow [members] to have somebody impartially review discipline that happens to them when they are serving those people in the state of Indiana,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, told reporters afterward.

During session, Taylor repeatedly questioned Freeman on data for minor and major offenses, arguing there was no evidence the bill was necessary.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis (Courtesy Indiana Senate Democrats)

“I don’t have to know numbers to know that Houston, we have a problem, and we should change the law in Indiana,” Freeman retorted.

Asked if Indiana should give the guard the resources to hold courts-martial — rather than block members from demanding them — key lawmakers acknowledged some need, but to varying degrees.

“If the issue is that you don’t have the resources or locations, that might be something we need to look at,” Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray told reporters Thursday. “I’ll tell you the other side … I’m not sure for these these minor issues that we really want our National Guard using their time and their resources to do that more lengthy process.”

“If this [bill] is what they want, I’m very happy to support it,” Bray added.

House Speaker Todd Huston congratulated Senators for passing the bill in comments to reporters. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said he hoped Holcomb would find room in the budget for trial resources.

Guard leaders said there’d been four reported sexual assault cases last year, but didn’t ask Holcomb to convene courts-martial even for those cases, WFYI reported. It is unclear the outcome of those cases.

Senators passed the bill 34-13, with five Republicans joining eight Democrats in opposition. It passed the House in late January 74-24, with three Republicans defecting.

It hasn’t been amended, so the chambers have no differences to resolve. That means the bill will go to Holcomb for a signature.

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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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