A US federal court ruled Thursday that a retired officer’s sexual assault case against Air Force General John Hyten is allowed to proceed to the next phase. Hyten, the second-highest-ranking US military official, was accused of sexually assaulting a female officer in 2017.
Retired Army Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser accused Hyten of engaging in unwanted sexual advances toward her in a hotel room at a conference in 2017. Hyten is now the vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Spletstoser came forward with the allegation last year after President Trump nominated Hyten for the position. However, a subsequent Air Force investigation did not substantiate the misconduct accusations and the investigation cleared him before his Senate confirmation.
Hyten has denied Spletstoser’s accusations. He also argued that the lawsuit is barred by the Feres Doctrine, which prohibits service members from being sued in civil court because the alleged assault was “incident to military service.”
The Thursday ruling by Judge Michael Fitzgerald of the US District Court for the Central District of California rejected the defense’s motions to dismiss the case and to change the venue from California to Nebraska. The judge found that the suit was not barred because “it is not conceivable that [General Hyten’s] military duties would require him to sexually assault [Spletstoser].” This was true regardless of “whether General Hyten came to Plaintiff’s hotel room under the pretense of work-related purposes.”
Air Force Major Trisha Guillebeau, a spokesperson for Hyten, said that the Department of Justice is reviewing the ruling. According to legal experts and advocates, the federal judge’s decision was rare and “could potentially chip away at such cases usually staying in the military justice system.”