In New Haven, CT yesterday, the US District Court held a summary judgement hearing on a lawsuit filed back in December 2010 by the Service Women’s Action Network or SWAN, the ACLU and the ACLU of Connecticut going after the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs for their failure to respond to a Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA request asked the government to open up records documenting incidents of rape, sex assault, domestic violence and sexual harassment in the military.
According to the press release:
“Unfortunately, the DOD seems to be spending more resources preventing us from getting critical data on the true prevalence of sexual violence in the military than in prosecuting criminals and punishing negligent commanders,” said SWAN’s Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of SWAN. “If we know that specific units have higher rates of sexual assault or harassment, or that specific commanders have a pattern of sweeping incidents under the rug, we can address the problem at its root–currently, there is little deterrence to prevent serial predators or the commanders who protect them from enjoying full careers in the military. The American public deserves to know the facts about this crisis.”
In an issue gaining widespread, mainstream attention, it is estimated that over 19,000 servicemembers are sexually assaulted each year. In order to fully understand where the biggest flaws in the current military justice system surrounding sexual violence lie, it is vital that human and veterans’ rights organizations have access to key data in the thousands of reports filed, including where reports are made, which officers processed the reports and how the report was handled.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to sexual assault and harassment in our military, and the government must work with us to end it,” said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “In order to support service members who have been victimized, we must know the truth about the extent of military sexual violence, and what has been done to address it.” Ms. Park will be in court for the hearing along with SWAN’s Legal Director Rachel Natelson.
Arguments will be made by students from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, who have worked with all three organizations under the guidance of Michael Wishnie. “The Department of Defense is spending its time and money siccing lawyers on SWAN instead of solving its sexual assault epidemic,” said Edwina Clarke, a Yale law student intern assigned to the case. “If DOD were serious about protecting service members from sexual assault by other service members, it would release the records sought by SWAN instead of illegally withholding them in violation of federal law.”
The legal team on the case includes Wishnie, Clarke, Douglas Lieb, Ivy Wang, and Sam Kyung-Gun Lim of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School; Park and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; and Sandra Staub of the ACLU of Connecticut.