Military officers and law students join forces to learn about military justice

Second-year law student Christian Burne learns about the similarities between the criminal and military justice systems as part of Military Law taught by Col. Harrold McCracken. Credit: Heather ShelleyAll Rights Reserved.

CARLISLE, Pa. — Many people’s idea of military justice is the intense courtroom scene between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” But very few civilian or judge advocate general (JAG) lawyers get to shout, “I want the truth!” (while a witness sneers, “You can’t handle the truth!”) during a trial.

Fortunately, Penn State’s Dickinson Law offers a unique course that combines jurisprudence and the armed services called Military Law that helps fill in the blanks. “I take students through the time a soldier commits any misconduct — from the beginning of the act to court-martial to confinement,” said Col. Harrold McCracken, adjunct professor of law at Dickinson Law and director of National Security Legal Studies at the U.S. Army War College. “It’s a soup-to-nuts kind of course. It’s an opportunity to better understand the military justice system,” McCracken added.

The class includes students from Dickinson Law as well as the U.S. Army War College — officers working to obtain a master’s of science degree in strategic studies. The course outline includes education about the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) — the laws and regulations to be followed across all branches of the military. For the most part, these laws govern all service members — Army soldiers, Navy sailors, Air Force airmen and Marines — no matter where in the world they are serving.

McCracken said much of the course contrasts the differences between the military justice system and the civilian world. “The due process rights that a service member has are identical to those in the criminal justice system,” McCracken said. “But one big difference is that in the military, a defense attorney is appointed to a serviceman, regardless of the offense he/she is accused of committing. We believe that your due process is important.” Out in the real world, however, someone accused of a misdemeanor, such as disorderly contact, is likely not going to receive legal representation.

While stories of soldiers being court-martialed and thrown into Leavenworth may be a popular impression of punishment in the military, the reality is the number of court-martials is very small compared to the overall armed services population. (A court-martial is the military version of a civilian criminal trial held in front of a judge.) Of 420,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army, there were fewer than 1,000 courts-martial in 2015 — less than 1 percent.

What’s more common is an “administrative separation,” in which a service member is separated from his/her duty in a non-judicial process for reasons such as insubordination, drug abuse, or poor performance. Administrative separation boards adjudicate misconduct that doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity. “You’re not going to have a job anymore, but you’re not going to go to jail either,” explained McCracken.

Christian Burne, a second-year student at Dickinson Law currently taking Military Law, is learning about the similarities between the criminal and military justice systems. “In some ways it is very much the same,” Burne said, noting both systems have trials and appellate courts. “But in other ways, there are key differences. For example, if I fall asleep at my desk job in the civilian world, my boss might be mad at me, but that’s about it. However, if I fall asleep at my post in Afghanistan, bad things could happen.” And whether you fall asleep at your post in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Fort Benning, Georgia, the infraction is the same.

Burne said he appreciates that the UCMJ applies the same standards for American military members no matter where in the world they’re stationed. “It provides uniformity and is a robust way to enforce discipline,” he said.

“They (the U.S. Army War College students) bring some real-world experience to our class discussions, which is very valuable,” Burne said. “It’s nice to get their perspective … it’s definitely a value-add.”

McCracken agrees, saying the officers can help the law students understand military life while the law students can help the U.S. Army War College students with things like case law. “This class is about bringing the two communities together — Dickinson Law and the U.S. Army War College — and exchanging ideas and opinions,” he said.

Burne, who graduated ROTC from the University of Scranton, is planning for a career as a U.S. Army lawyer. “I love the operations side of the military and by hopefully joining the JAG corps one day, I can satisfy the U.S. Army side of things while practicing law,” Burne said.

McCracken, who was commissioned in 1985, previously taught military law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. He was a student at the U.S. Army War College in 2009.

Last Updated May 12, 2016