In May, President Barack Obama said that sex offenders in the military ought to be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged.”
It’s one thing for a regular citizen to say that but something else entirely for the commander in chief. When the president makes a public comment like that, he exerts what the military calls “command influence” on military court proceedings.
The New York Times reports that “lawyers in dozens of assault cases have argued that Mr. Obama’s words as commander in chief amounted to ‘unlawful command influence,’ tainting trials and creating unfair circumstances for clients as a result.”
To deal with the problem, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued an unusual directive stating that the president’s words, in effect, should be ignored. “There are no expected or required dispositions, outcomes or sentences in any military justice case,” Hagel wrote, “other than what result from the individual facts and merits of a case and the application to the case of the fundamentals of due process of law.”
That, of course, is the responsible approach; each case must be judged on its merits.
Obama, who once taught constitutional law, was trying to make a general point about justice. But the commander in chief, like regular citizens, needs to abide by the maxim: Think before you speak.