The Judge Advocate General’s Corps, also known as the “JAG Corps” or “JAG”, is the legal arm of the United States Navy. Today, the corps consists of a worldwide organization of more than 730 commissioned officers serving as judge advocates, 30 limited duty officers (law), 500 enlisted members (primarily in the Legalman rating) and nearly 275 civilian personnel, all serving under the direction of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy.
In 1775, the Continental Congress enacted the Articles of Conduct, governing the ships and men of the Continental Navy. However, soon after the end of the Revolutionary War, all of these ships were sold and the Continental Navy, to include its Continental Marines, the precursor of today’s United States Navy and Marine Corps, were disbanded. In July 1797, Congress, after authorizing construction of six frigates, enacted the Rules for Regulation of the Navy as a temporary measure. Then, in 1800, Congress enacted a more sophisticated code adopted directly from the British Naval Code of 1749. There was little or no need for lawyers to interpret these simple codes, nor was there a need for lawyers in the uncomplicated administration of the navy prior to the American Civil War.
During the Civil War, however, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles named a young assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia named Nathaniel Wilson to present the government’s case in complicated courts-martial. Without any statutory authority, Secretary Welles gave Wilson the title of “Solicitor of the Navy Department,” making him the first house counsel to the United States Navy.
By the Act of March 2, 1865, Congress authorized “the President to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, for service during the rebellion and one year thereafter, an officer of the Navy Department to be called the ‘Solicitor and Naval Judge Advocate General.'” The United States Congress maintained the billet on a year-to-year basis by amendments to the Naval Appropriations Acts. In 1870, Congress transferred the billet to a newly established Justice Department with the title of naval solicitor.
Colonel William Butler Remey, USMC, was the first uniformed chief legal officer of the navy, in 1878. Colonel Remey was able to convince Congress that the Navy Department needed a permanent uniformed Judge Advocate General and that naval law was so unique it would be better to appoint a line officer of the navy or Marine Corps. The bill to create the billet of Judge Advocate General of the Navy was signed in 1880.
During World War I, the Naval Appropriations Act of 1918 elevated the billets of navy bureau chiefs and judge advocate general to rear admiral. In July 1918, Captain George Ramsey Clark was appointed the first judge advocate general to hold the rank of rear admiral.
During the rapid expansion of the navy during World War II, line officers who had been attorneys in civilian life were often pressed into service, frequently ad hoc, to serve as prosecutors and defense attorneys in court martial proceedings. Many of these attorneys remained in the navy following the end of the war as general line officers, but serving as de facto judge advocates. In 1947, the navy created a “law specialist” program to allow line officers restricted duty to perform legal services. By the Act of May 5, 1950, Congress required that the Judge Advocate General be a lawyer. The Act also required each Judge Advocate General of any service be a member of the bar with not less than eight years of legal duties as a commissioned officer. The Act also enacted the first Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
By 1967, the navy had 20 years of experience with the law specialist program. There was, however, increasing pressure to create a separate corps of lawyers. That year, Congress decided to establish the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAGC) within the Department of the Navy. The legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 8, 1967, and redesignated all navy lawyers as staff officers within the navy, similar to physicians and chaplains. Prior to this change, all navy lawyers were Line Naval Officers.
Prior to 2005, JAG Corps personnel primarily worked in one of three offices: Navy Legal Service Offices (NLSO) providing defense and legal assistance to eligible personnel; Trial Service Offices (TSO) providing courts-martial prosecution, court reporting and administrative trial support; and Staff Judge Advocates (SJA) providing legal advice to U.S. naval base commanding officers. In 2005, the Judge Advocate General of the Navy approved a pilot program which resulted in the merger of the navy’s Trial Service Offices and Staff Judge Advocates into new commands known as Region Legal Service Offices (RLSO). Additionally, the JAG Corps has attorneys and paralegals on aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and flag ships, as well as in support of Seabee battalions and special operations commands.