JAG Corps Work Can Be on the Battlefield as Well as in the Courtroom, Houck Says

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What is the United States Navy looking for in the lawyers it selects for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps? Not surprisingly, Vice Admiral James W. Houck, Judge Advocate General for the Navy, answered, “We’re looking for good lawyers.” But, he added, a few other qualities are important: Being a good team player and being willing to take on difficult assignments, sometimes in difficult places.

Houck described the work of the JAG Corps and his own career at an “On the Issues” session Thursday with Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School.

JAG Corps positions have become highly sought, especially in today’s difficult job market for lawyers, Houck said. He described the corps as “a world-wide law firm” with 2,300 employees. The initial commitment of a lawyer joined the corps is for four years, but more than 90% seek to serve longer. And “people stand in line” for assignments in a place such as Afghanistan, Houck said.

He said the JAG Corps has had a good association with Marquette and there have been at least seven Law School grads in the corps in recent years.

The role of lawyers in the Navy is far broader than many people realize. Members of the JAG Corps work both as prosecutors and as defense lawyers in military judicial proceedings and they provide legal help to members of the Navy and their families. But, Houck said, they are also involved in combat issues that put them on the frontlines of combat. Those issues can include advising commanders on what is a legally valid target or an acceptable risk of collateral damage. “Lawyers are integrated in ways people would never imagine,” Houck said.

Previous duty in the Navy is not a requirements for a JAG Crops member and most have not served in the military previously. Houck himself is an exception: He graduated from the US Naval Academy and served aboard a destroyer where he met members of the JAG corps while on duty in the Mediterranean. They got him interested in the work, which led to graduation from the University of Michigan Law School and a master of laws degree from Georgetown University Law Center, specializing in international and comparative law. Houck has led the JAG Corps since 2009.

Responding to questions from Gousha and audience members, Houck said the lifting of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules for gay and lesbian service members has gone very well (“so far, it just hasn’t been a big deal”) and that JAG Corps members have been defending detainees at the Guantanamo military prison aggressively and well.

Law of the sea is one of Houck’s specialties. Going back to the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, the United States has been involved in work on an international treaty on the law of the sea. But Congress has not approved the treaty, which was submitted during the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. Houck said the Navy continues to support the treaty and thinks ratifying it would be in the interests of the United States.

What does he think of the “advanced interrogation” methods used during the Bush Administration on some detainees? Houck said the US military complied with Geneva conventions and evidence is not admitted at tribunals if it is obtained by cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of people. Asked specifically about “waterboarding,” he said it had been determined by his superiors that it was not acceptable.

Asked what courses a law student who was interested in the JACG Corps should take, Houck suggested criminal law and international law, but said there were no specific requirements. He stressed that the ability of someone to be a good team member counts for a lot.

Houck said he runs into people in public who are familiar with the JAG Corps because of the movie, “A Few Good Mean,” and, even more, the television series “JAG.” He joked, “The TV show is tamer than our reality.”

The session can be viewed by clicking here.



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