Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Rifle, a Canteen, And a Law Book

THERE probably weren't any lawyers aboard the landing craft that surged toward the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, but attorneys weren't far behind the assault forces.

``It's my guess that within two weeks after D-Day, JAG lawyers were in France conducting courts-martial,'' says former Adm. John Jenkins, now the assistant dean at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. When he retired 14 years ago, Admiral Jenkins was the judge advocate general (JAG) of the Navy; today he keeps abreast of military lawyering as chairman of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Lawyers in the Armed Forces.

About these ads

As we honor the men and women who fought for the United States in World War II - and, by implication, all Americans who have served in the armed forces - let's not forget the lawyers who, whether for a few years or for a career, have worn military insignia and whose offices sometimes are tents or Quonset huts.

The first judge advocate of the Army was appointed in 1775, and law has had an official presence in the armed forces ever since (though not always administered by lawyers). The modern era - and the real professionalization - of military law began with the formation of the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corp in 1948; the other services followed suit. Two years later Congress adopted the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the code that governs all courts-martial prosecutions of military offenders.

The UCMJ gave more weight to individual rights than previous military legal codes did (in its famous 1966 decision that spawned the ``Miranda warnings'' for criminal suspects, the Supreme Court noted that ``the UCMJ has long'' required similar warnings). The UCMJ ``was a shocking change to many commanders, who feared they would lose control of discipline in their units,'' says retired Brig. Gen. John DeBarr, once the top legal officer in the Marine Corps.

In time, though, commanders came to be glad that the code kept them from being mixed up in criminal proceedings, says General DeBarr, who as a military judge presided at 194 courts-martial for serious felonies, including 15 murders, during a year in Vietnam.

Military lawyers do many things besides prosecute and defend criminal cases. Some become specialists in sophisticated areas of international law and help define rules of engagement for forces in combat. According to Jenkins, when a Navy admiral was summoned from Japan to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to help plan Operation Desert Storm, only two subordinates accompanied him on the plane (the rest of his staff followed by ship): One of these was his legal officer. ``He knew he couldn't plan a war without his lawyer,'' Jenkins explains.

Another important task of uniformed lawyers is ``legal assistance'' - providing noncriminal legal services to military personnel and their families, from drafting wills and obtaining various benefits to resolving landlord-tenant disputes. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the military's legal-assistance program.

``Legal assistance is what we call a `force multiplier,' like decent food or reliable mail delivery in a war zone,'' says retired Maj. Gen. William Suter, who was the assistant judge advocate general of the Army when he retired in 1991. ``Soldiers far from home perform better knowing that their legal needs and their families' legal needs are taken care of.''

About these ads

Among the military reserve units called up for Desert Storm were JAG units whose lawyers helped prepare wills and powers-of-attorney for the troops bound for the Gulf, DeBarr says.

These former military lawyers speak highly of the responsibility and courtroom experience they obtained right out of law school. The services have no trouble recruiting able graduates from top law schools, they say.

As an example, says General Suter, now the clerk of the US Supreme Court, the high court recently decided to hire an additional lawyer to help handle habeas corpus petitions and other emergency filings. After interviewing numerous ``highly qualified'' applicants, Suter recounts, a committee of justices selected an Army captain. ``She was the best of the lot,'' he says proudly.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.