The Judge Advocate General's Corps at 75

  • Published
  • By Colonel John J. Martinez Jr., USAF (Ret.)
Highlighting some of the important events of the last 25 years.

“History makes you smart, heritage makes you proud”

This simple maxim, which has Air Force roots, sets the scene for The JAG Reporter 75th Anniversary Edition. It helps us understand the history of The Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG Corps) by seeing how the two components interact.


History, at its core, is a sequence of events. It is far more than a chronological list. History is a layered resource that tells how and why events occurred, and the ways people influenced or reacted to them. When confronting current and future challenges, history offers a context for making realistic situational assessments, coming up with possible courses of action, and solving problems based on more than personal experience and the recent past. History can feel like a friendly mentor after learning that someone else once faced the same problem you are facing. History can make you smart.

Heritage is a product of history as experienced by our predecessors. It is an inheritance—the values, standards, ideals, traditions, and customs that gradually formed among an organization’s people over decades. This inheritance is not static; it is ever evolving. For example, as deployments became a more prevalent part of military life in the 1990s, a corresponding set of standards and expectations arose that were likely quite different from the institutional mindsets of those who left the JAG Corps in the 1980s.

An organization’s heritage, including its standards, ideals, and aspirations, drives the way its members respond to individual experiences, tasks, programs, and just about everything else they encounter. A positive and functional culture contributes to progress and success. The heritage passed to us from JAG Corps members going back 75 years has fostered an effective, vibrant, and highly regarded JAG Corps. Our heritage is worthy of great pride.

What is the JAG Corps Heritage?

In the lead article of the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Reporter, the authors provided a historical retrospective on the development of what is now The Judge Advocate General's Corps. They started by describing the “hallmark” of the Corps as “stability and growth” and observed that the Corps had “matured nicely” over its first 50 years.

We have also grown in missions and responsibilities, experience, and capabilities.

Looking back at the last 25 years, those terms still apply. We exhibit stability, yes, in our purpose and dedication to the mission, but we are not sluggish when there is a call or opportunity for change, even radical change. Perhaps an updated description should be “dynamic stability.” We have also grown in missions and responsibilities, experience, and capabilities. Finally, we are mature, but not in the sense of full and final development, but in dependability and competence—and in having developed a profound heritage.

At the heart of our heritage is our commitment to Air Force Core Values (Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do), JAG Corps Guiding Principles (Wisdom, Valor, Justice), and the standards and ethics of our military and legal professions and government service. These tie to the JAG Corps mission and vision.

Our heritage also includes many longstanding Corps-wide attributes. They have persisted regardless of major changes in missions, commands, and organizational structure. Some examples include:

  • Dedication to serving the interests of command coupled with the commitment to supporting the legal needs of the Secretariat, Air Staff, Office of the Chief of Space Operations (Space Staff) and other organizations and agencies, all with professional and independent legal advice and services
  • Dedication to supporting the legal needs of Airmen, Guardians, and their families
  • Inclusiveness, teamwork, and a healthy workforce
  • Agility, adaptability, and versatility
  • Innovation and initiative

We have met the challenges and opportunities of the last quarter century armed with our personal qualities, training, and legal capabilities and bolstered by our heritage. As we review some of the important events of the last 25 years, we should keep in mind that the JAG Corps members who have experienced and influenced those developments have themselves contributed to molding the JAG Corps heritage of today.

We have met the challenges and opportunities of the last quarter century armed with our personal qualities, training, and legal capabilities and bolstered by our heritage.

The Last 25 Years: Events, Structure, and Capabilities

The Vantage Point. A review of this period reveals literally hundreds of noteworthy accomplishments, initiatives, projects, and programs the JAG Corps experienced and was engaged in. This includes major legal and societal developments and enactment of important legislation. There were a multitude of command and legal office changes in the field and at the Office of The Judge Advocate General (AF/JA) which added or transferred responsibilities. Every domain and practice area was involved—often joining efforts on the same challenge—and in some cases JAG Corps members and their families were affected as individuals.

Considering that there are dozens of JAG Corps legal and sustainment practice areas, even listing a small number of entries would not be particularly informative or fairly represent the scope of their contributions. Instead, this retrospective takes the vantage point of a “generalist” JAG Corps member who left what was then the JAG Department in 1999 and returned now for the first time. After a period of reorientation, what big-picture developments would stand out?

They might view this period as having been bookended by two transformative events, September 11th and COVID⁠-⁠19, both of which have continuing effects. Dramatic advancements in information technology were both convenient and raised problematic issues. A dominant theme has been the focus on the standing, rights, and protection of people. Broad categories include diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; sexual assault, domestic assault, and interpersonal violence; the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; and extremism in the military.

Following is a sampling of what might stand out to our returnee. With some exceptions, the list is in chronological order.

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The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a progression in how the JAG Corps provides comprehensive support for operations. Supporting operations was not new. Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama (1989) and the operations of the Gulf War in the 1990s involved legal staffs in air operations planning, deployments, and many other expanded roles.

This period has been different in terms of duration, scale, and breadth. The operations and international law mission set had already been extensive, and now homeland defense and detainee operations, among other demands, arose. Other practice areas expanded and refined their roles in contingency contracting, Military Commissions, the care of returning veterans, and legal assistance.

On 1 July 2003, the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) changed “Department” to “Corps.” The change, attributed to a desire to reduce potential confusion arising from a JAG “Department” within the Department of the Air Force, did not change the duties and responsibilities of The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) or otherwise affect JAG Corps organization and operations.

Nor did it change the JAG Corps identity. The first TJAG, Major General Reginald C. Harmon, had preferred Department over Corps because he wanted to avoid any impression the JAG Corps was a separate military organization. He wanted to make it unarguably clear the new legal office was part of the Air Force. Long before 2003, it was plainly evident that the JAG Corps was woven deeply within the Air Force at every level—a different name would not affect that.

In the aftermath of years of effort to delineate the roles of the Air Force General Counsel and the JAG Corps, including reviews by Air Force and Congressional panels, Congress stepped in with a significant statutory change. In 2004, what was previously 10 U.S.C. § 8037 was amended to define TJAG’s role as legal adviser, TJAG’s authority over judge advocates, and ensure the ability of judge advocates to provide independent legal advice.

The pertinent provisions currently read:

(c) The Judge Advocate General, in addition to other duties prescribed by law-
(1) is the legal adviser of the Secretary of the Air Force and of all officers and agencies of the Department of the Air Force;

(2) shall direct the officers of the Air Force designated as judge advocates in the performance of their duties;

(f) No officer or employee of the Department of Defense may interfere with-
(1) the ability of the Judge Advocate General to give independent legal advice to the Secretary of the Air Force, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, or the Chief of Space Operations; or

(2) the ability of officers of the Air Force who are designated as judge advocates who are assigned or attached to, or performing duty with, military units to give independent legal advice to commanders.


Two efforts led to readily observable changes.

The JAG Corps 21 program was developed after the Chief of Staff of the Air Force challenged TJAG late in 2005 to come back to him with a proposal on how the JAG Corps should be positioned to provide the best legal services for the future. Many of its dozens of initiatives are now part of how normal operations, and others were modified or cancelled. Two prominent initiatives were the creation of AF/JA Field Support Centers, which solidified the field support mission of headquarters offices, and The Judge Advocate General's School (AFJAGS) moving under TJAG rather than within a major command, which accelerated its agility in meeting new training needs.

The 2020 Strategic Alignment resulted in the current domain arrangement. Among other reasons, it was established to simplify the JAG Corps structure at AF/JA and in field legal offices and to provide legal services in a construct that is easily understandable within the JAG Corps and to its clients. AF/JA offices were moved, created, and disbanded to transition into the new Military Justice and Discipline, Operations and International Law, Civil Law and Litigation, and Leadership domains.

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On 23 July 2008, the first Air Force TJAG to serve as a lieutenant general, Lieutenant General Jack Rives, was promoted. The elevation of all the service TJAGs to lieutenant general resulted from Congress recognizing the criticality of the senior military lawyers of each service having an appropriate voice in high-level decision making.

Other JAG Corps general officer positions have also changed. The Deputy Judge Advocate General continues to serve as a major general, and there are now brigadier generals at the Military Justice and Discipline and Operations and International Law Directorates and the new Office of Special Trial Counsel. A member of the Senior Executive Service continues to serve as director of the Civil Law and Litigation Directorate.

The recognition that sexual assault victims needed better support led to the establishment in 2012 of what was originally termed the Special Victims’ Counsel program. Its role has been expanded to eligible victims of domestic assault and interpersonal violence. The program includes a worldwide network of specially designated counsel who provide legal representation, advocacy, and a voice for their clients in the legal process.

The standup of what is now the AF/JA Inspections and Standardization Directorate (AF/JAI) in 2012 represented the consolidation of JAG Corps inspections processes that had been dispersed in the field. With this office came Corps-wide consistency provided by a team of specialists who both compiled inspection checklists based on field inputs and travelled to conduct inspections.

A pandemic of this scale had not occurred in a hundred years. Every person and workplace was affected, and major practice areas were met with sets of legal issues. An overarching new capability was developed—the ability to work remotely. As technology caught up to unprecedented demand levels, people were able to conduct meetings, legal proceedings, and work from home virtually. Particularly noteworthy, was that AFJAGS was able to continue its essential training functions through a judicious combination of in-residence, virtual, and online methods.

Under these conditions JAG Corps members dealt with issues like the development and acquisition of vaccines, COVID testing and mandatory vaccinations, travel restrictions, and the implications of public health emergencies. All this work had to be done urgently knowing the impact of decisions would be immediate and widespread.

The creation of an entirely new military service in 2019 with its own headquarters, commands, and units in the field fit smoothly within JAG Corps operations. The space law practice area existed within the JAG Corps for many decades and there were already trained and experienced advisers on space law matters at both AF/JA and in the field. This made the transition to a separate armed service a matter of making structural adjustments rather than adding a new and different type of client.

The Military Justice Act of 2016 brought sweeping changes to the military justice system that required practitioners to adjust processes and procedures. The Office of Special Trial Counsel (OSTC), created by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022 will call upon the new lead special trial counsel, a judge advocate in the grade of brigadier general working directly under SecAF, to assume certain authorities formerly held by commanders—in effect, new JAG Corps capabilities.


Through the last third of its existence, the JAG Corps heritage provided the foundation that enabled sound and timely legal support regardless of circumstances. Overall, our fundamental way of serving has remained constant. In the field, staff judge advocates continue to directly support commanders and their people by being located with them. AF/JA legal offices support—often on site—both field legal offices and their clients at Department of the Air Force Headquarters and other organizations and agencies. This has been the formula for success and client satisfaction for 75 years.




About the Author

Colonel John Martinez Jr.

Colonel John J. Martinez Jr., USAF (Ret.)

(B.A., Rutgers College, New Brunswick, New Jersey; J.D., New York University Law School, New York, New York) serves in the Strategic Plans and Programs Directorate, Office of The Judge Advocate General, Washington, D.C.
Edited by: Major Allison K.W. Johnson (Editor-in-Chief), Major Victoria H. Clarke and Major Andrew H. Woodbury
Layout by: Thomasa Huffstutler