Gillibrand puts a hold on a Navy nominee after ‘shocking’ answers on assault

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Jo Ann Rooney. ()
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has placed a hold on the nomination of Jo Ann Rooney, the Obama administration's nominee for undersecretary of the Navy, according to the senator's office.

Rooney recently went off-script in a written response to questions about whether to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, as Gillibrand has proposed.

The nominee wrote that judge advocates, who would decide whether to prosecute cases under Gillibrand's proposal, would view cases “through a different lens than a military commander.”

“I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline,” Rooney wrote. “I believe this will result in fewer prosecutions and therefore defeat the very problem that I understand it seeks to address.”

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Gillibrand, who has led a bipartisan push to reform the way sexual assaults are handled in the armed forces, said she was "extremely troubled" by the suggestion cases should not be based on the evidence.

Gillibrand said "it is shocking statements like those of Jo Ann Rooney that further erode" the trust victims place in the system.

"The United States legal system is based on evidence, justice and due process," Gillibrand said in the statement. "Why isn’t this good enough for our servicemembers who risk everything to protect those freedoms? The brave men and women we send to war to keep us safe deserve nothing less than a justice system equal to their sacrifice.  If you were a servicemember raped on duty, why would you have confidence to come forward and report after hearing that basing decisions to prosecute solely on evidence would be a bad outcome? Jo Ann Rooney’s testimony should send chills down the spine of any member of the armed services seeking justice.”

Rooney, who currently serves as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, later clarified the remark in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin, saying she meant commanders could consider more than simply the likelihood of a conviction.

The White House did not immediately return an email for comment on the hold, which would require Rooney to receive 60 votes for confirmation.

Protect Our Defenders, an advocate group for survivors of military sexual assault, cheered news of the hold.

"It is unthinkable that after all of the public debate and outrage over the broken military justice system, a nominee for one of the top positions in the Navy would advocate for a system of justice inferior to the one that every other American enjoys," said Nancy Parrish, the group's president. "The brave men and women who have signed up to serve our country deserve an independent, impartial, and transparent system of justice-anything less is an insult to those who have dedicated their lives to protect our freedom.”

The group had started an online petition calling for senators to place a hold on the nomination.

Gillibrand's bill to remove sexual assaults from the military chain of command is expected to come to the floor this month.

In August, she had public commitments from 46 senators, including conservatives like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, and she told Capital that she hoping to get 60 votes, in case the bill needed to break a filibuster.