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Has justice prevailed?

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It’s not likely that U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has made many friends among those in the upper echelons of the Pentagon.

She has worked to have sexual assault cases involving armed forces personnel handled by military litigators who are outside the chain of command. She believes commanding officers are too often tempted to sweep such charges under the rug, thus requiring the need for independent prosecutors.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday came up a few votes short of passing Sen. Gillibrand’s measure. The vote was 55-45 in favor, but it needed at least 60 affirmative votes to pass.

“Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress,” according to a Thursday story by the Associated Press. “The debate and vote were the culmination of a nearly yearlong campaign to curb sexual assault in the ranks, led by female senators who have questioned whether the military’s mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice. Thursday’s rejection is unlikely to be the final word. Defeated but unyielding, Gillibrand and her allies vowed to seize the next opportunity to force another vote, probably in the spring when the Senate starts work on a sweeping defense policy bill for the 2015 fiscal year.”

“Many people said to me, ‘Kirsten, I’m going to watch this. And if it doesn’t get better in the next six months, I’m with you next time,’” Sen. Gillibrand said at a news conference.

If the Pentagon wishes to keep its grip on these cases, fine. But military officials must demonstrate in short order that they are resolving some of the long-standing problems with successfully prosecuting such crimes.

While she could not persuade enough of her Senate colleagues to support her bill, Sen. Gillibrand began a public dialogue on an important issue: overseeing criminal justice within the military. She focused on instances of sexual assault, and it’s tragic that so many military personnel — including both men and women — believe their accusations of rape and repeated sexual harassment have not been taken seriously or handled properly.

It’s important to debate whether it’s in the nation’s best interest for the military to isolate itself from the civilian criminal justice system. There is a perception that commanders who fear a blemish on their records may whitewash incidents of criminal behavior.

The question is fairly simple: whether and how the military justice system should be reformed to eliminate any hint of improprieties resulting from decisions made by officers whose own reputations may be at stake. Sen. Gillibrand has provided an opportunity for a compelling examination of this aspect of military life.

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