The Origins of the “Potted Plant?”

My latest project (when I can spare the time) involves reading CAAF decisions from the 1951-1952, 1968-1969, 1994-1995, and 2014-2015 term. I’m up to the 1994-1995 term now, and came across an interesting footnote. Most judge advocates are familiar with the concept of more senior trial counsel serving as a “potted plant,” but what is less known is that this phrase may have originated in the Iran-Contra scandal.

In 1992, the United States Air Force court-martialed an Airman for wrongfully using cocaine and failing to obey a lawful order. The intermediate appellate court affirmed without opinion. After a change in appellate counsel, the Airman appealed the intermediate court’s decision to CAAF, raising an issue there not raised in the court below. CAAF subsequently remanded the case to the intermediate court for consideration of the new issue.

The intermediate court was not amused:

When the [then] Court of Military Appeals permits appellants to raise issues for the first time before them without requiring a showing of good cause, and returns the case for us to repeat our review of the case, it impeaches confidence in the Court’s performance of its statutory duties and provides incentive to appellate counsel to engage in piecemeal litigation….[1]

This is an opinion definitely worth reading, particularly the end of the majority opinion and the two concurring opinions. Each sheds light on the relationship between the military highest court and its intermediate courts. But for purposes here, one passage in CAAF’s decision warrants attention:

As far as the implication that an issue not raised at the lower level cannot be raised before us, we are sure the court below would not sanction a “potted plant” role for appellate counsel with regard to new issues.[2]

Putting aside the concern with issues being raised at the highest court for the first time, the footnote accompanying this sentence drew my attention; as a “more senior and the certified trial counsel,” I am often “relegated” to potted plant (i.e. supervisory) duties:

The term “potted plant” is used in America’s image-based society to distinguish passive non-players (“is a potted plant”) from people of action (“is not a potted plant”). It is derived from Brendan V. Sullivan, Jr.’s, response to Senator Inouye, when the Senator was attempting to limit Mr. Sullivan’s role in protecting his client (Oliver North) from what Mr. Sullivan perceived as unfair questioning by the Senate staff during the 1987 Irangate Hearings: “Well, sir, I’m not a potted plant. I’m here as the lawyer. That’s my job.”[3]

And there you have it….

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[1] United States v. Johnson, 42 M.J. 443, 445 (C.A.A.F. 1995) (citation omitted).

[2] Id. at 446.

[3] Id. at 446 n.2.

Military Society and the Constitution

Readers of CAAFlog recently learned about a Marine Corps court-martial that sentenced a Marine to a bad-conduct discharge for, amongst other offenses, violating an order to remove three Bible quotes from her workspace. If her petition is granted, the Government will face perhaps its most impressive adversary, the former Solicitor General of the United States, Paul Clement. Of the many interesting aspects of this case, two warrant attention here. First, the question of whether the order was lawful raises important First Amendment issues. It also reminds me of my earlier post concerning my belief that there is no homogenous “military society;” it is more likely a society of societies. Second, Mr. Clement’s argument, successful in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014), requires that the Government demonstrate a compelling interest in order to infringe upon the constitutional rights of a service member. What these are and how to articulate them is the subject of my recent article accepted for publication this fall by the University of Memphis Law Review.

LCpl Monifa Sterling, a self-identified Christian, taped three copies of a quote from the Bible (“No weapon formed against me shall prosper”) around her work area. These quotes were intended to reflect the “trinity,” the Christian belief of three persons in one God. At trial, she testified that this was to protect herself from what she considered to be harassment by fellow Marines.

Her immediate supervisor saw these quotations and ordered them removed. Noticing that they were not removed by the end of the duty day, LCpl Sterling’s supervisor removed them and threw them in the trash. LCpl Sterling reposted them the next day. Her supervisor again tossed them in the trash after LCpl Sterling did not remove them by the end of the day, as ordered. For these and other incidents not relevant here, the Marine Corps preferred charges against LCpl Sterling, which included disobeying the lawful order of a senior non-commissioned officer.

At trial, LCpl Sterling challenged the lawfulness of her supervisor’s order to take down the Bible quotes. The Government put on no evidence that she shared her desk with another Marine, and, as argued by Mr. Clement in his Supplement to Petition for Grant of Review, the Government admitted no evidence that any Marine was “distracted, annoyed, or agitated by-or even saw-the quotations.” According to the Supplement, every witness that testified stated that they were never distracted, annoyed, or agitated.

The military judge denied LCpl Sterling’s motion to dismiss, and the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA) affirmed the conviction. The NMCCA decision is definitely worth a read for those interested in more details on this particular case.

In his Supplement, Mr. Clement argues that the Government must assert a compelling interest in order to infringe upon a service member’s exercise of his or her religion. He began by noting that the Supreme Court previously held that “neutral, generally applicable laws may be applied to religious practices even when not supported by a compelling governmental interest.” Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. at 2761. In response, the subsequent Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), however, required that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” 42 U.S.C. §2000bb-1(a). In order to do so, the Government must successfully demonstrate that such action is in furtherance of a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Id. §2000bb-1(b). In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA). This act broadened RFRA’s definition of “exercise of religion” to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Id. §2000cc-5(7)(A). The Hobby Lobby decision thus noted that RLUIPA amended RFRA’s definition of “exercise of religion” beyond that articulated in First Amendment case law. And it applies to the military.

There are a number of interesting issues in this case. But what may be overlooked is that this case lends further evidence to the proposition that “military society” is actually a heterogeneous compilation of sub-societies. Conduct sufficient to warrant a special court-martial in the Marine Corps may only warrant some sort of lesser punishment in another service. And this may be completely appropriate. There are differences between the services, and within them. I believe that the challenge is that, in a criminal system that applies the civilian rule unless there is a military necessity not to, it is incumbent upon the Government to articulate why a particular action, as applied, warrants the lesser protection.

If Mr. Clement’s argument prevails, which it is likely to do, the Court will acknowledge that service members are entitled to substantial rights, as are their civilian counterparts, unless the military articulates a compelling interest in applying a different rule, or application of such established rule. In my upcoming article to be published by the University of Memphis Law Review, I argue that the appropriate articulation of a compelling interest is military necessity. I go further and, after an exhaustive review of the Court’s decisions, propose ways in which the Government may articulate sufficient examples of military necessity, as well as how defense may articulate the Government’s failure to meet such an exacting standard. Anticipated publication is this fall.