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Judge Advocates, Then and Now

By Rear Adm. John G. Hannink
Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Navy                                                                

Upon learning that the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps is only 50 years old, most people express surprise.

One could be forgiven for assuming the JAG Corps has been around for far longer. Since its inception Dec. 8, 1967, the JAG Corps has been essential to naval operations. Furthermore, the scope and breadth of advice has grown since our Corps’ foundation, to the point that we’re at today – where our personnel advise clients across the globe on matters that range from the most sensitive national security decisions, to individual legal services, to Sailors in need of our assistance.

Indeed, Navy judge advocates have long captured the public’s imagination. I am still asked regularly about the “JAG” television show and few have forgotten Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise sparring on the big screen in “A Few Good Men.” Their portrayals in popular culture have made judge advocates indelible symbols of naval service.

Some people also are surprised to learn that the first uniformed chief legal officer of the Navy was, in fact, a Marine. Col. William Butler Remey was assigned to the post in 1878 after convincing Congress that, like other branches of the military, the Navy needed a permanent JAG (e.g., the Navy had a “JAG” long before the JAG Corps).

GREAT LAKES, Ill. (February 8, 2016) – Lt. Kimberly Rios works on legal briefs for Naval Station Great Lakes Command Feb. 8. (U. S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom)

Remey actually argued that naval law was so unique that a line officer must serve as JAG. It wasn’t until 1950, nearly 75 years later, that the law required the JAG to be an attorney. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that formalized the creation of the JAG Corps.

Today, a half-century later, the JAG Corps is a very different organization. It has evolved in countless ways to meet the demands of a growing military and a more interconnected and complex world.

Judge advocates are now ever-present fixtures at most naval commands. And yet, I wonder how many Sailors have a comprehensive understanding of the myriad ways judge advocates support them and the Navy mission.

It’s impossible to capture everything the JAG Corps does in a single blog post. It is perhaps best to highlight our three core practice areas – the three ways in which we touch Sailors and their families every day.

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (Feb. 3, 2017) Cmdr. Andrew Wilkes, a legal advisor assigned to U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, discusses the implementation of a United Nations security council resolution with Geeandeo Cheetamun, Mauritian chief inspector of police during Exercise Cutlass Express 2017. The exercise is sponsored by U.S. Africa Command and conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa to assess and improve combined maritime law enforcement capacity and promote national and regional security in East Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Justin Stumberg/Released)

Our military justice team strives to help ensure good order and discipline, and protects the rights of all parties in judicial proceedings. Trial counsel, defense counsel, judges and victims legal counsel work tirelessly on behalf of Sailors and their families, and to protect the integrity of the military justice system.

Our operational lawyers provide commanders with accurate and responsive legal advice to support military operations and sound naval administration. We have attorneys specializing in maritime law, international law, environmental law and many other disciplines. Our judge advocates are on the cutting edge of many emerging issues, such as cyber warfare and special operations.

Do you need a will, help with your taxes or perhaps home-buying advice? Our legal assistance team supports the fleet by helping Sailors and their families resolve personal legal matters and to remain mission-ready. A judge advocate or civilian subject matter expert is standing by at any time to help Sailors with all their concerns and more.

Today, as it turns 50 years old, our JAG Corps is more versatile and more ingrained in naval operations than Remey, Johnson or any of the JAG Corps’ earliest members could have envisioned. Our judge advocates are making a meaningful impact on the Navy and on the lives of Sailors and their families. The future – the next 50 years – looks bright. U.S. Navy