U.S. NAVY JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL'S (JAG) CORPS SOFT EPAULETS

If the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps were converted to a private practice, it would unquestionably be unsurpassed when it comes to the diversity of legal issues it addresses. Although most people automatically think of courts-martial and military justice when they hear the word “JAG,” the fact is that the Navy’s JAG Corps must deal with law across a breathtaking span of areas. International law, administrative law, operational law (rules of engagement), civil litigation, admiralty and maritime law (naturally), information and intelligence (cyberspace and national security)—any one of these topics alone could form the basis for a sprawling private firm.

This isn’t a state of affairs the JAG Corps brought upon itself. But in having to train lawyers and legal personnel to be able to represent the Navy and its personnel across such a broad spectrum of legal matters, the Corps realized its system could wind up creating a cadre of “Jack of all trades, masters of none.” Ironically, such a system has the most detrimental impact on Military Justice litigation—the very area that is most closely associated with the Navy’s JAGs. That’s because when it comes to Military Justice litigation, courtroom experience trumps almost everything else.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the Navy could see this trend toward generalization beginning to erode the effectiveness of its Military Justice litigation, in part by looking at its JAG counterparts in the Army and Air Force. In both those branches, JAGs who get some courtroom experience under their belts are moved to another position where they can begin to achieve experience in another area of law. In fact, some judge advocates in the Army lacking Military Justice experience were, at times, placed in senior positions of Military Justice litigation proceedings as a means to gain experience in that area of the law.

Recognizing the need to establish a group of judge advocates highly practiced in the demanding world of Military Justice litigation, the United States Navy JAG Corps released JAG Corps 2020: Navy JAG Corps Strategic Plan in September, 2006. In it, the Corps detailed its plans to establish a career litigation track that would enable judge advocates to specialize in Military Justice litigation. Wisely, the JAG Corps realized that steering judge advocates gifted in courtroom litigation to this career path would not only enhance the quality of Military Justice litigation, but also provide the basis for the mentoring and guidance of new JAGs serving as counsel.

The vision put forth in that 2006 report is already being realized. As of May, 2016, almost eighty of the Navy’s 879 active-duty JAGs are serving a career litigation track; they’ll remain litigators for the duration of their careers and, eventually, they will be up for consideration as military judges. The level of expertise these litigators develops, along with their thoroughgoing understanding of the Navy’s Military Justice system, will serve to make it as fair both to defendants and victims as it can possibly be.

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