Monday, January 28, 2008

In which TO solves all the problems in the Marine Legal Services Community

People are always asking me: “TO, why is the Marine Corps legal community so screwed up?” The first answer is trite, but there is a lot of truth to it: it is full of lawyers. The other services promote their lawyers and legal servicemen within their service' Judge Advocate Corps. Their proficiency as lawyers and legalmen determines their promotion opportunities. However, for Marines, lawyers are promoted based on their competitiveness vis a vis all other Marine officers. So you have lawyers competing against infantrymen, tankers, and adjutants for promotion. The criteria for promotion therefore has little to do with legal skills, and much more to do with things like punching the right tickets, serving in the right billets and the Marine lawyer’s relative proficiency in Marine officer common skills. So, what you end up with are well rounded officers who happen to lawyers serving in senior Marine legal billets. The question most people ask when they need a lawyer is: “Is this guy any good as a lawyer?” The Marine Corps’ answer is “for a lawyer, he is a good officer.”

So how about the Staff Non-commissioned officer ranks? Surely, they must be better. Well, not necessarily. Marine legal staff NCO’s are promoted using the same system as Marine officers. Staff NCO’s are promoted on the basis of there relative competitiveness against all other Marine Staff NCOs. So their proficiency as para-legals or legal office administrators does not figure into their promotion into senior positions, their proficiency as a Marine Staff NCO does. Whether a legal administrative chief has the wherewithal to follow through on all the paperwork that is necessary to respond to a guilty Marine’s appeal is not really a concern. Unfortunately, this institutionalized lack of concern about legal proficiency has real world consequences. I just heard a story about a Marine sent to the brig for 4 years on a rape conviction. His attorney’s filed a routine appeal even though their was no doubt about the Marine’s guilt. The legal administrative chief ignored deadlines to complete the transcript of trial and to forward other necessary documents. Then, that Marine Staff NCO left to unit and moved to Okinawa to fulfill another set of orders. Meanwhile, 18 months later, the appeals court vacated the conviction because the government did not meet their deadlines, and the Marine left the brig, free, and reported back to his unit.

Who was responsible for this debacle? Well, the unit could not blame the Marines currently in the positions of responsibility, because they had no visibility on the convict’s appeal. The unit could blame the newly promoted Gunnery Sergeant who left for Japan, but that did not good, since the unit had sent him on his way with a nice fitness report and a medal. And those tangible things matter more to promotion boards than angry emails exchanged between commanding officers. So the upshot is a rapist goes free, no one can be blamed, and Marine Corps legal services receives yet another well-deserved black eye.

What can be done? Make the JAG a Corps, must as they are in the Army. Allow promotions to occur only within the JAG Corps. Allow the JAG Corps to control orders and to punish mis- mal- and nonfeasance among Marines in the JAG Corps. Then, you will see real, competent justice being done in the Marine Corps.