Public and press access to the military justice system suffered a serious blow Wednesday, as the military's highest appeals court narrowly ruled that it has no power to consider media challenges to military judges' rulings on access to courts martial.
The decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces came on a bid by journalists to gain access to legal filings and court orders in the court martial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who's accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of military reports and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.
In a sharply divided ruling, the appeals court ruled, 3-2, that it had no jurisdiction to consider such a complaint from parties other than the government or the defendant in a particular case.
"This Court, and courts-martial in general, being creatures of Congress created under the Article I power to regulate the armed forces, must exercise their jurisdiction in strict compliance with authorizing statutes," Judge Scott Stucky wrote in the majority opinion (posted here).
Stucky acknowledged that the same appeals court ruled in 1997 that the public has a right to attend court martial proceedings, but he pointed to subsequent rulings limiting courts' powers and to the fact that the defendant in that case joined with media organizations in protesting the closure.