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Ask the Lawyer: Subordinates can be charged for disrespect

May. 10, 2012 - 12:49PM   |   Last Updated: May. 10, 2012 - 12:49PM  |  
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About the author

Mathew B. Tully is an Iraq War veteran and founding partner of the law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC. You can click here to email him a question. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.

Q. There's a lot of tension between a lieutenant and me. Could I get in trouble for ignoring him or telling him to back off?

A. On rare occasions, subordinates can get away with sounding off about a superior commissioned officer who is acting out of line. Disrespect or insubordination may be condoned if the officer's conduct in relation to the subordinate substantially departs from the "reasonable standards appropriate to that officer's rank or position," according to the Manual for Courts-Martial.

Otherwise, service members who act disrespectfully toward a superior commissioned officer are in violation of Article 89 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Words are not even necessary. It takes less than cursing, insults, contemptuous language or crude gestures for a subordinate's behavior to be disrespectful. Remember, body language can speak volumes.

The Manual for Courts-Martial defines disrespectful behavior as behavior that "detracts from the respect due the authority and person of a superior commissioned officer."

Neglecting customary salutes, rudeness, insolence, showing marked disdain, indifference and impertinence are all types of disrespectful acts. It does not matter if what a subordinate is saying about a superior commissioned officer is true. The officer does not even have to be present when the disrespectful acts occur.

It is not uncommon for Article 89 charges to boil down to he said/she said affairs, with the offended officer and offending subordinate both differently interpreting nonverbal cues. In 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces found a Marine Corps private violated Article 89 when he told a captain that "You can't make me, you can give me any type of discharge you want, you can give me a DD, I would rather have a dishonorable discharge than return to training, I refuse."

The captain and witnesses later testified that the private was smirking while he made this statement, though the subordinate denied doing so. The court affirmed a lower court's ruling that found the private's behavior to be disrespectful, "considering what appellant said and the context in which he said it."

Service members accused of being disrespectful toward a superior commissioned officer should immediately consult with a military law attorney. Depending on the circumstances, a lawyer could challenge the government's claim that a service member's language or actions were disrespectful. An attorney could also argue that the subordinate did not know the person to whom he was disrespectful was a superior commissioned officer or that actionable comments were made in a purely private conversation.

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