A federal court partially rejected a former U.S. Air Force Academy cadet's challenge to her disenrollment for an honor code violation, saying she had no constitutional right to continue as a cadet.
Madison Smith filed suit against the U.S. Department of Defense following her 2019 dismissal, arguing it violated her right to due process under the law. Smith, who would have graduated this year, claimed she had "both property and liberty rights in her education, degree and official commission she was seeking," and that the academy's disciplinary process lacked procedural safeguards to protect those rights.
But on Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen M. Tafoya threw out those claims. Smith had said the records of her disenrollment created "a grave and continuing reputational injury," which under existing court precedent requires that the information be false, foreclose other employment opportunities and be published.
"A government agency maintaining records is not dissemination, much less public dissemination," Tafoya wrote in a Sept. 21 order. Further, she saw no allegations that Smith sought to reenter the military.
With 4,000 cadets working to pin on lieutenants bars, the academy holds students to a strict honor code that prohibits lying, cheating, stealing or tolerating that conduct from others.
Sean C. Timmons, the attorney representing Smith, conceded that by filing the civil lawsuit, Smith had been the one to disclose the circumstances of her dismissal.
"The claims of the judge in the opinion are unfounded, specious and evidence of a very sloppy review of the pleadings and documents," he said. "Due process claims against the government are very difficult to prove and are often tossed on technicalities. This, however, does not stop our main thrust of our case."
Smith's federal complaint asserted that shortly after she entered the Air Force Academy in 2017, she incurred an honor violation. She served academic probation from January to April 2018, but later that year failed honor probation.
Cadets who break the school's honor code face a presumptive sanction of disenrollment, but first-time offenders can obtain probation — a yearlong program of re-education designed to stop future violations.
She was reportedly disenrolled in November 2018, but the action was suspended in order to allow her to complete "162 journals; 5 book reports; 50 tours; 50 confinements" and meet with mentors and officers. Smith was allowed to continue on probation into 2019, and even though an evaluation panel recommended the reduction of sanctions, commanding officers rejected that finding.
However, in May 2019, Smith claimed her commander allegedly told her of additional conduct violations based on "disrespectful statements."
She subsequently received notice that she had failed probation. Her records contained a note that she should not be considered for future service without factoring in the circumstances of her departure and the needs of the military.
"As a result of defendants' arbitrary and capricious decision to disenroll, plaintiff from the academy and violate her constitutional rights, plaintiff has suffered extreme emotional distress," read Smith's complaint.
The academy and the Department of Defense countered that because Congress has given Air Force leadership the ability to disenroll cadets, Smith had no constitutionally protected interest that would enable her to remain.
"Plaintiff does not explain what liberty interest she has in her continued enrollment," wrote the U.S. Attorney's Office for the government. "And courts have repeatedly held that individuals do not have a protected liberty interest in continued employment in the military."
Timmons said that cadets in the Air Force have fewer protections than students going through disciplinary proceedings in the other service academies. His client, he said, was not allowed to confront her accuser, cross-examine witnesses or have a neutral panel examine the accusations against her.
A 1995 report to Congress from what is now called the U.S. Government Accountability Office compared the honor code adjudication processes of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The GAO determined the Air Force Academy afforded the fewest due process protections, although the burden of proof for violations is higher, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Smith still has one remaining claim against the government in her case: an allegation that the academy violated the Administrative Procedure Act by violating its own procedures and failing to hold a proper disciplinary hearing. Timmons described that as the stronger legal claim.
"The conduct of the Air Force is not only immoral and unethical, but it's a scandal," said Timmons. "The Air Force does not follow due process. Every other branch does."
The Air Force Academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case is Smith v. Department of Defense et al.