Virginia State Bar

An agency of the Supreme Court of Virginia

Adjust Text Size:   A   A

Military Law

A Section of the Virginia State Bar.

Military Law Newsletter - Spring 2010

Military Law Newsletter Spring 2010 

Lawyers at Sea?

As a newly-minted lawyer in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corp, I was excited for opportunities to help sailors sort through their legal conundrums.  I was also excited to get into the courtroom and put into practice the skills learned in law school.  Little did I imagine the unique experience coming my way when I joined the crew of the USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70).  The VINSON, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, was making its way from Norfolk, Virginia to its new home in San Diego, California and I was assigned to go along.  But why, you may ask, does the Navy assign lawyers to sea duty?  One of my more witty college buddies suggested that we're brought along for target practice...oh, gotta love the lawyer jokes!  But seriously, what role do we lawyers play at sea?

First, in general, an aircraft carrier has three Staff Judge Advocates (SJAs) assigned to the ship.  One lawyer, the Strike Group SJA, works for the Strike Group Admiral (the "Strike Group" is comprised of the carrier, the airplane and helicopter squadrons assigned to the carrier, and all the escort ships that accompany a carrier on deployment).  The second and third lawyers are assigned directly to the ship's company and work, not for the admiral, but for the captain of the ship.  The more senior ship's SJA is nicknamed "Judge" (even though he or she is not really a judge).  The second SJA is generally called "Mini-Judge," "Mini," or "DISCO," short for Discipline Officer.

So, what do these three SJAs do?  The easiest explanation is that they are advisors, like in-house counsel; but, instead of advising the board of directors, they advise the captain or the admiral.  This begs the question: what do they advise on?

Based on the title, the DISCO's job is probably pretty easy to surmise.  Even though most of the 4,000+ sailors on board are upstanding and squared-away folks, you can probably imagine that some of them occasionally get into trouble (either regular old trouble, like larceny, or military-specific trouble, like sleeping on watch or disrespect towards an officer).  The DISCO's job is to handle these issues and prepare them for review by the skipper at a non-judicial hearing called “Captain’s Mast.”

The Strike Group SJA and the Judge, on the other hand, don't work solely on disciplinary matters; instead, they are general advisors to the admiral and the captain, respectively.  For example, when we were headed into Haiti, we were passing relatively close to Cuba - were there any maritime law issues? When we were actually within the territorial waters off Haiti, Brazil, or transiting the Straights of Magellan - were there any international treaties to be aware of?  If the mayor of Lima, Peru wanted to give a very expensive gift to the skipper – what do the Department of Defense ethical regulations say about it?  If there is confusion about pay issues – do Navy regulations give any guidance?  If a fishing vessel is making a "mayday" call from inside Uruguayan territorial waters - what does the law of the sea say our obligations are?  I could go on, but you probably get the picture.  A ship-board JAG must be versatile and flexible in an immensely broad array of situations; as Captain Palmer, my commanding officer back in Norfolk advised me in preparation for my deployment: Semper Gumby!

Ninety days after leaving Virginia, the VINSON pulled into San Diego harbor.  As a lawyer, it was an immensely enriching experience – I practiced admiralty law, international law, criminal law, and fiscal law, among others.  But, that was not all; I also had the honor of watching our crew as they performed marvelously in quake-ravaged Haiti; I was proud of our sailors who acted as ambassadors of our country during joint exercises with various South American nations; and, it was a joy to visit Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Lima, Peru with my shipmates.  I’m pretty sure I walked away from the experience a better lawyer, but even more, I walked away a better-rounded Naval officer, and a more ardent patriot.  Although my career as a lawyer has just begun, I imagine my experience on board the VINSON will remain one of its highlights.

Benjamin C. Sandel is a Lieutenant in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, currently serving at the Navy Legal Service Office, Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia.  He is licensed by the State Bar of California.

Statements or expressions of opinion or comments appearing herein are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the State Bar, Section or the editor.