SJA: More than just legal assistance

26 May 2006 | Sgt. Robert L. Fisher

The Staff Judge Advocate office consists of Marine lawyers and Marines trained in the legal system who take care of and assist service members with legal problems.“We provide legal support to all units aboard the Combat Center and all units off the Combat Center,” said Maj. Daren J. Erickson, deputy SJA. “We are combat service support and…prepare all supporting units for combat in regards to legal readiness.”Six sections comprise SJA: Legal Assistance, Installation Law and Review, Military Justice, Defense, Court Reporters and Legal Administration. While each section is part of SJA, they each serve a different function.LEGAL ASSISTANCEThe Legal Assistance Office assists more than 11,000 service members, their families and retired service members, according to the Combat Center SJA Web site at the most used section, they offer legal advice and guidance from bar-certified lawyers in several areas including: powers of attorney, uncontested divorces, child support, taxes, immigration, notarization, wills, and several other areas, said 1st Lt. Chad R. Hyde, legal assistance officer-in-charge.DEFENSEWhen a service member is going up for a court-martial, or needs non-judicial punishment counseling or administrative separation counseling, they will need a lawyer to guide them and possibly defend them. This is where the Defense section steps in with their attorneys.“We all have law degrees, we passed the bar in states that require it,” said Capt. Cindie Blair, senior defense counsel. “Even though we wear a uniform and we are Marines, we’re lawyers first in our ethical duties.”However, the Defense section cannot represent a Marine in criminal cases involving civilian authorities because each attorney took the bar in different states, said Blair.Fear of reprisal makes some clients refuse to trust in the defense lawyer provided by SJA.“Some of our clients don’t trust us enough to open up and tell us what happened,” said Blair. “We are under an ethical duty not to disclose. We don’t talk to the units.”The client’s needs are the most important thing, she said.“We have strict confidentiality — our state bars require it. We can not breach that confidentiality. We are their attorney, we are here for them,” she said.MILITARY JUSTICEIn order to maintain the strict policies of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Marine lawyers must also enforce each of its statutes. This is the purpose for the Military Justice section.“We receive requests for legal services and we prosecute cases for the battalion commanders and the commanding general,” said Maj. Lisa B. Muscari, military justice officer.Military trials can be taxing on the service member being prosecuted, their family, the commands and each service member involved in the trial. An extended trial compounds the stress on everyone involved. Many people don’t understand how much work is involved in putting on a trial, how many resources are required. Beyond the cost there are also members from the unit to sit on a jury, transporting the witnesses and providing subject matter experts if their input is needed to make a case, said Capt. Jonathan C. McDonald, trial counsel.COURT REPORTERSGraduates of a 27-month court reporting school, the stenographers sit in on all courtsmartial and also assist commands in typing transcripts.INSTALLATION LAW AND REVIEWOnce a case is completed, a thorough review must be completed to ensure proper procedure was followed, to determine if a base order needs revising, or commanders need ethics advice. Installation Law and Review accomplishes this mission.“We handle pretty much everything that’s not legal assistance of military litigation,” said 1st Lt. Andrew M. Wallace, installation law attorney and a New Hartford, N.Y., native.While they do not serve service members directly, they ensure every trial was performed properly.“I review all the courts-martial that have already gone to trial and I ensure all the proper procedures were followed,” said Maj. Hugh J. Redman, installation law officer and review officer and a Milwaukie, Ore., native. “I’m the government watchdog that makes sure the courts-martial get pushed to the appellate courts as required by statute,” he said. LEGAL ADMINISTRATIONLegal Administration is the final stop for some service members. Not everyone who wears digital camouflage adheres to the UCMJ. Those who choose to disobey its rules may eventually come to this section.They also assist service members in filing claims against the government.“We help them get all the information they need to get together to send in their claims to the Navy Legal Service Office. They are the ones that process and pay the claims,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dale E. Board, legal administration officer.LEGAL READINESS“The SJA mindset is to ensure that supported units and staffs are given quick, cogent advice in a timely manner,” said Col. Allen Turbyfill, SJA. “We ensure everything is done with due process.”SJA helps countless service members and their families with the any legal support, advice or assistance they may need.“That’s the good thing about having all the different sections here, there’s a lot of experience,” said Muscari. “We have junior officers, we have senior officers — and there’s experience where we’ve all worked in different areas. The Marines here work really hard. They are very dedicated in each area. I feel very confident they can address any issue.”