On Nov. 3, 1966, the 22nd Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the Navy, Rear Adm. Wilfred Hearn, spoke about a “legal explosion” during a dedication ceremony in Norfolk, Va., for the Navy’s first-ever Law Center.
Hearn told the assembled crowd, “The Law Center is the Navy’s response to the legal explosion which both the military and civilian communities are experiencing. By this I have reference to the increasing demands for counsel brought about by legislation, judicial decisions, and a generally increased awareness on the part of the citizenry of the availability of legal services.”
Indeed, Sailor and Fleet legal needs were growing, and also growing more complex. Our military was enmeshed in the Vietnam War. Navy personnel strength was multiplying (and would reach a historical peak of nearly 759,000 uniformed personnel in 1969). Among Navy leaders and policy makers, debates about whether to form a Navy JAG Corps – creating a staff corps with specialized skills and professional status – were heating up.
Hearn’s description of a “legal explosion” was not hyperbole. The new Law Center was given a clear mission: “To provide prompt, efficient, and comprehensive legal services to all commands, in those fields of law where the individual commands could not provide their own legal services.”
Despite meeting initial resistance from type commanders – who feared losing their disciplinary authority – and the staff judge advocates embedded at their commands, the Norfolk Law Center was an enormous success.
Only two years after its founding, a second Law Center in San Diego was opened. By June 1969, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Thomas Moorer, ordered the activation of 30 Law Centers around the globe, including two in Vietnam.
These Law Centers helped the Navy maneuver the high-tempo and technically complex operating environment. They also addressed the new requirements mandated by the Military Justice Act of 1968, which – among other reforms – prescribed increased lawyer participation in special courts-martial.
But the dramatic increase in the number of Law Centers created a problem for Hearn and his predecessor, Rear Adm. Joseph McDevitt, the Navy’s 23rd JAG. The JAG did not have operational control over the Law Centers. This greatly hampered the JAG’s ability to provide coordinated and standardized legal services to Sailors and the Fleet.
The problem was solved just a few years later, when the Secretary of the Navy, The Honorable John Warner, approved a plan to create Naval Legal Service, which realigned the Law Centers under the authority, administration, and management of the JAG.
And on Dec. 3, 1973 – precisely 50 years ago – the CNO, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, issued OPNAVNOTE 5450 in order to formally establish Naval Legal Service. The organization’s newly refined mission was “to administer the legal services program and provide command direction for all Naval Legal Service activities and resources as may by assigned …”
Today, Naval Legal Service is known as Naval Legal Service Command (NLSC)
. This month, the entire Navy JAG Corps celebrates the golden anniversary
of NLSC’s founding – a watershed event in JAG Corps history.
For the past 50 years, NLSC has grown and changed in response to an evolving Navy, legislative reforms, world events, and threats to America’s national security. The organization and its personnel – which includes nearly 900 officers (primarily judge advocates), enlisted members (primarily legalmen and yeomen), civilians, and Reservists – have tirelessly supported naval and joint operations in times of conflict and crisis.
NLSC has provided indispensable legal services during wars in the Middle East, and conflicts in Europe and Asia; in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters; and throughout the global COVID-19 pandemic and countless other events of great consequence. Always on the watch, NLSC personnel have contributed to vital security and stability endeavors, helping safeguard the rules-based international order.
Today’s NLSC has vast legal expertise and global reach. It encompasses eight Region Legal Service Offices (RLSOs) in 53 locations, four Defense Service Offices (DSOs) in 19 locations, and the Victims’ Legal Counsel Program (VLCP) in 28 locations.
provide legal assistance services to Sailors and their families, legal advice to installations and commands without judge advocates, and prosecution for good order and discipline offenses outside the jurisdiction of the Navy’s new Office of Special Trial Counsel.
advocate for Sailors in myriad ways, ensuring that their Constitutional rights are always protected, and that they receive the highest quality advice about their legal concerns.
provides survivors of a sexual offense or domestic violence with a dedicated attorney to help them understand the investigation and military justice processes; guard their legal rights and interests; and access other resources that may accelerate their recovery.
During these birthday celebrations, the worldwide Navy JAG Corps will reflect upon NLSC’s many past accomplishments and also contemplate the organization’s future. In this decisive decade – and in anticipation of accompanying “legal explosions” – NLSC is sure to play a crucial role. It will maintain the continued legal readiness of the Fleet and the warfighters, helping ensure our Navy remains prepared fight and win today.