Court tosses suit alleging sexual aggression at West Point

A former US Military Academy at West Point cadet who sought judicial relief from what she described as a sexually oppressive culture that included crude chants during campus marches was told Aug. 30 by an appeals court to seek help from Congress instead.

The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling cited past court decisions, some decades old, in saying “civilian courts are ill-equipped” to second-guess military decisions regarding the discipline, supervision, and control of military members.

Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston wrote that the former cadet, identified only as Jane Doe, couldn’t pursue damages from two former superior officers she claimed ignored or condoned a sexually hostile culture before her alleged 2010 rape by another cadet. She requested and was granted an honorable discharge two years after entering West Point with 200 women in a class of 1,300 cadets. She later graduated from a civilian college.

US Army photo by Stephen Standifird

US Army photo by Stephen Standifird

In her 2013 lawsuit, the woman alleged that the men, a lieutenant general and a brigadier general, created a culture that marginalized female cadets, subjecting them to routine harassment and pressure to conform to male norms.

The 2nd Circuit said it did not “discount the seriousness” of the woman’s allegations nor their potential significance to West Point’s administration.

“As the Supreme Court has made clear, however, it is for Congress to determine whether affording a money damages remedy is appropriate for a claim of the sort that Doe asserts,” the court said.

Dissenting Circuit Judge Denny Chin said the lawsuit should proceed, noting West Point promotes itself as one of the nation’s top-ranked colleges.

District Judge Denny Chin. Wikimedia Commons photo from user Sue Kim.

Circuit Judge Denny Chin. Wikimedia Commons photo from user Sue Kim.

“While West Point is indeed a military facility, it is quintessentially an educational institution,” Chin said. “When she was subjected to a pattern of discrimination, and when she was raped, she was not in military combat or acting as a soldier or performing military service. Rather, she was simply a student.”

The lawsuit sought unspecified damages, claiming West Point’s leaders failed to protect women or punish rapists after accepting women in 1976. It said West Point officials openly joked with male cadets about sexual exploits and faculty members routinely expressed sympathy with male cadets over a perceived lack of sexual opportunities, urging them to seize any chance.

Female cadets coped with a misogynistic culture that included cadets marching to sexually demeaning verses in view and earshot of faculty members and administrators, the lawsuit said.

It said West Point officials required mandatory annual sexually transmitted disease testing only for female cadets, saying diseases harmed women more than men and it was the responsibility of women to prevent their spread.

Photo by Mike Strasser, US Military Academy Public Affairs

Photo by Mike Strasser, US Military Academy Public Affairs

A spokeswoman for lawyers for the officers declined comment. West Point didn’t comment.

A spokeswoman for Yale Law School, representing the ex-cadet, said the woman was disappointed and didn’t know if she will appeal.

Sandra Park, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said the judges stretched the meaning of prior court rulings to cover service academy cadets.

“It raises a question whether students in effect are waiving their constitutional rights when they decide to join a military academy,” she said.

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