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Navy vet lawmakers want to create military litigator corps

Navy vet lawmakers want to create military litigator corps
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Republican Reps. Ryan Zinke (Mont.), a retired Navy SEAL commander, and Ron DeSantis (Fla.), a former Navy lawyer, are introducing legislation on Monday that would allow military lawyers to specialize in litigation.

Zinke and DeSantis plan to introduce the legislation as a standalone bill, but also plan to propose it as an amendment to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act when the House takes it up on the floor on Tuesday. 

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The legislation would allow a selective group of military lawyers in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps to become career courtroom litigators in criminal law. The Navy already allows it. 

“It is critical to ensuring that the United States continues to the preeminent military force in the world,” Zinke and DeSantis said in a letter to colleagues. 

Currently, military lawyers — known as Judge Advocate Generals, or JAGs, rotate between assignments from prosecutor to administrative lawyer, without specializing in one role.  

“While this is useful for some staffing needs and long-term leadership, there is no career track for JAGs to gain expertise in litigation. The limited experience, training, and caseloads that military JAGs are tasked with place them at the lowest level of experience compared to their counterparts in the civilian government,” Zinke and DeSantis said in the letter. 

The majority of military JAGs — including military prosecution supervisors — have tried 10 or fewer cases, according to the letter, citing a 2014 survey of active duty Army JAGs. 

Zinke and DeSantis say this change could help military prosecutors of sexual assault cases, and help avoid dangerous mistakes. 

“In 2013, a junior JAG made a novice error and failed to share exculpatory evidence with defense counsel in a child sex assault prosecution. This resulted in an appellate court dismissing the charges with prejudice — not allowing the case to ever be retried,” they said. 

“This amendment will have no fiscal impact and will affect less than about 150 JAGs of the branches combined. This is an elective career route and requires a selection board for JAGs who desire to participate,” they added in the letter. 

“Our servicemembers, their families, and the victims of crimes prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice deserve skilled and experienced prosecutors and defense counsel,” they said.