A report yesterday incorrectly described the discharge ordered by a federal appeals court for Leslie Anne Cole, a Navy seaman who refused to perform her duties after seeing the movie "Gandhi." The court reinstated Cole's bad-conduct discharge.
A sharply divided federal appeals court said today that a civilian judge had no authority to give a conscientious objector discharge to a Navy woman who had refused to wear her uniform or perform her duties after seeing the movie "Gandhi."
The sailor, Leslie Anne Cole of Bethlehem, Pa., spent 57 days in 1983 in an isolation cell at Fort Meade, Md., at times dressed only in a sheet.
A federal court in Baltimore granted her the conscientious objector discharge in April of that year.
Today's 5-to-4 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here reverses the lower court and reinstates the Navy-imposed dishonorable discharge of Cole, who drew widespread attention after renouncing her participation in the military and refusing to work on the USS L.Y. Spear submarine tender in Newport News, Va.
A regular three-judge panel of the appeals court initially heard the case in January, but later put off its decision after the full nine-member court, in an unusual step, ordered a rehearing on the case in June.
Cole's attorney, Harold Buchman of Baltimore, indicated today that Cole probably would appeal to the Supreme Court, but said he had not read the opinion or conferred with Cole. She could not be reached for comment.
The appeals court ruled that Cole, now 29, had "not exhausted her administrative remedies" to avoid a bad conduct discharge and that her refusal to wear her uniform or perform nonmilitary duties in service was anathema to the military services.
If an enlistee were allowed to be "her own commander-in-chief or her own military judge . . . a military organization simply could not function," Chief Judge Harrison L. Winter wrote for the majority opinion.
Winter said Cole should have fought the courts-martial charges even though Winter said she had little chance of succeeding.
"Even though we also recognize that it is extremely unlikely that Cole will prevail in military courts, we think that a bad conduct discharge is the price she properly may be required to pay" for her actions, Winter wrote.
In an equally strong dissent, Judge James M. Sprouse said Cole, whose sincere beliefs were not questioned by either side, was trapped in an impossible situation.
Sprouse said that the Navy had used discretionary authority to hold up Cole's C.O. discharge while she was being tried on disciplinary charges stemming from her C.O. beliefs.
But to restart her C.O. application, Sprouse wrote, she would be forced first to prove the innocence of actions that she admitted because of her C.O. beliefs.
After Cole refused to wear her uniform in January 1983, the Navy suspended her application for a conscientious objector discharge, saying she first would have to face charges of misconduct.
In February she was convicted of violating orders and sentenced to 60 days hard labor, docked $1,350 in pay and was dishonorably discharged.
After her release from the Navy in the spring of 1983, Cole told interviewers, including The Washington Post, that her objections to military service had evolved over time and crystalized after she went on active duty.
"I know the people think I hate America," Cole said at the time. " 'You just want to get out.' 'You're a cop-out.' 'You signed your name.' They think I hate the U.S. military, but actually I am antimilitary worldwide."
Cole underwent psychiatric evaluations and several interviews with commanding officers and military chaplains, all of whom approved her C.O. request.
In January 1983, Cole, according to court records, was told it would be "another four or five weeks" before her application could be approved. On Jan. 24, she saw the movie "Gandhi."