On December 8, 2017, the United States Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its creation. Although the United States Navy had employed attorneys for more than a century prior to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature of H.R. 12910 into law they lacked the organization and status of their counterpart serving in the Army or Air Force.
The legislation Johnson that signed remedied this by creating Public Law 90-179, which amended the United States Code to establish “the Judge Advocate General’s Corps” as a “Staff Corps of the Navy,” giving the Navy’s legal professionals the same organizational status afforded to other officer corps such as doctors, chaplains, and dentists. And the creation of the U.S. Navy’s JAG Corps also marked the first time in the Navy’s 220-plus years that women in the Navy would be permitted to serve as lawyers.
But in a bit of irony, it turns out the introduction of lawyers as a profession in the United States Navy was carried out with any statutory authority whatsoever.
The 1797 Congressional authorization for the construction and manning of six Navy ships in response to the actions of the Barbary pirates necessitated the need for rules regarding the conduct of sailors and officers on those vessels. These bareboned regulations were replaced in 1800 by a more thorough code taken almost verbatim from the British Naval Code of 1749, which was more than sufficient until the outbreak of the Civil War. The war not only led to the dramatic expansion of the ships and personnel in the Navy, but also the number of complex courts-martial due to the unique nature of the conflict and the controversial actions taken by the Lincoln administration in response to it.
To deal with the growing number of courts-marital in the docket, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles—of his own accord and without any legislative mandate—created the position of “Solicitor of the Navy Department” and appointed a D.C. attorney named Nathaniel Wilson to it. Before the end of the war, however, Congress legitimized Welles’ actions by granting the President the power to appoint an officer from the Navy Department to the position of “Solicitor and Naval Judge Advocate General.” In 1880, Congress passed another bill establishing the billet of Judge Advocate General of the Navy, specifying that it be held by a line officer of either the Marine Corps or the Navy.
In 1946, the Navy established the Naval Justice School at Port Hueneme, California under the direct command of the Chief of Naval Personnel and the technical control of the Judge Advocate General. In June of that year, the Navy, following the recommendations of a committee headed former Under-Secretary of the Treasury Arthur Ballantine investigating the Navy’s court-martial system, acquired three-hundred special-duty “law specialists”, many from the civilian sector.
With the 1950 passage of an act enacting the first Uniform Code of Military Justice, Congress required for the first time that all Judge Advocates General be members of the bar and have at least eight years of legal service as a commissioned officer. This requirement set the stage for the 1967 creation of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which today comprises more than 2500 Nay and civilian personnel.