Issue No 9
Veterans’ and Service Members’ Rights
Members of the United States Armed Forces make tremendous sacrifices in order to protect our Nation. Recognizing these sacrifices, Congress has enacted a number of laws specifically designed to protect the civil rights of service members, both while they are on active duty and after they return to civilian life. These laws ensure that service members will be able to vote while they are stationed overseas, return to their civilian employment after completing their service, and have certain civil financial protections while on active duty. Additionally, service members who have been injured during their service and return to civilian life with a new disability have civil rights guaranteed by law. Safeguarding the civil rights of service members and their families is one of the highest priorities of the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office.
The right to vote is among our most basic and cherished civil rights. Enacted in 1986, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UCOCAVA) protects the right of service members to vote in federal elections regardless of where they are stationed. This law requires that states and territories allow members of the United States Uniformed Services and Merchant Marine, and their families, residing outside of the United States to register and vote absentee in elections for federal offices. The Federal Voting Assistance Program in the Department of Defense actively monitors the voter registration and absentee voting opportunities provided to members of the Armed Forces and assists service members and their families to facilitate their participation in the voting process. The United States Attorney General is authorized to enforce UCOCAVA and ensure that states comply with their requirements. During the 2010 general election, the Justice Department aggressively enforced this law, ensuring thousands of military and overseas voters had the opportunity to cast their ballots despite the failure of some election officials to send out ballots on time.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a federal law that provides a range of relief to active duty service members. The law postpones or suspends certain civil obligations so that members of the Armed Forces can focus their full attention on their military responsibilities without adverse consequence for them or their families. It applies to, among other things, rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, eviction, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgage interest rates, mortgage foreclosure, civil judicial proceedings, automobile leases, life insurance, health insurance, and income tax payments. This year, the Department of Justice reached the largest civil settlement ever under the SCRA, pursuant to which Bank of America will pay $20 million to resolve allegations that they illegally foreclosed upon service members without court orders.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA) protects the civilian employment rights of service members and veterans. Among other things, USERRA requires employers, under certain conditions, to put individuals back to work in their civilian jobs after military service. Service members called to active duty from a reserve component must be restored to the position and benefits that they would have attained had they not been absent from work in order to perform military service. USERRA also protects service members from discrimination in the workplace based on their military service or affiliation.
In addition to the three statutes discussed above, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is another law that the United States Attorney’s Office aggressively enforces to the benefit of disabled veterans, among other persons. The ADA prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life: to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services. Businesses, states, and local government agencies must take reasonable steps to make it possible for people with disabilities to be an employee or customer.
Last month, I convened a meeting with leaders from the New London Navy Submarine Base JAG Corps. The purpose was to solicit ideas on how we can support one another’s respective organizations to best serve the service members and their families from Connecticut, whether they are stationed locally, at sea, or abroad. Based on this meeting, we determined to enhance our shared goals by engaging in a unified effort of outreach to educate and protect the service members who serve to protect us. As one example of this effort, on September 21, 2011, representatives from our Office joined representatives from the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in an outreach program addressing civil rights issues faced by veterans in the housing market. Representatives from the Veteran’s Administration left the program well prepared to support veterans under their care. We will continue our outreach initiative and continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with other organizations similarly charged with serving one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Finally, on behalf of the United States Attorney’s Office, we would like to wish everyone a safe and memorable Veterans Day on November 11th, and say thank you to all of our veterans and their families for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.
For more information about the Justice Department’s work on behalf of service members, please visit www.servicemembers.gov. The FVAP website provides detailed information about voting procedures and materials and can be found at www.fvap.gov. More information about USERRA can be found on the Justice Department website: www.justice.gov/crt/emp, as well as on the Labor Department’s website at www.dol.gov/vets/programs/userra/main.htm.