Forget what you've seen on TV!
The real story behind shows like "JAG" plays out in courtrooms right here on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, through the hard work of the Legal Services Support Section, 2nd Marine Logistics Group.
When any of the 56,000 service members assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force is accused of a crime, it's the LSSS that provides the legal resources necessary to make sure justice is done.
"The case load here is quick and fast. We've got 150 cases on the docket downstairs," said Maj. Joshua Durden, chief review officer for LSSS. "Camp Lejeune's LSSS has the biggest docket in the entire Department of Defense."
Despite the heavy workload LSSS deals with on a daily basis, the Marines seek to treat each case personally, because they realize the gravity of their task. "You're dealing with people's lives," said Durden. "The real important thing is making sure the legal process is done correctly."
To maintain the integrity of their proceedings, LSSS has Marines in all the roles found in a civilian courtroom. They not only employ judges and attorneys for both sides, but also court reporters, administrators and even a review section to carry out the appeals process.
"The Legal Services Support Section provides to the Marine Corps a fair and just proceeding through the adversarial process," said Maj. Anthony Giardino, senior defense counselor for LSSS. "All the different parts moving together make sure there is a fair and just result." Military attorneys are held to a higher standard than their civilian counterparts. Not only must they pass the bar exam like any civilian lawyer, but they must also receive a commission and specialized training on military justice.
This rigorous screening process is necessary to ensure that American service members are held to the rule of law, while also respecting the protections given to the accused under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. "The military justice system is geared towards making sure there's good order and discipline in the fighting forces, but in pursuing that, Marines still have certain rights," said Giardino. "Down here on this end, the defense makes sure that the process is fair, because we are the shield that protects Marines' rights."
Although attached to a unit, members of the defense counselor remain independent of the local commanders, to prevent conflicts of interest so they can best serve the accused.
"We don't work for the chain of command. We work for our clients to make sure that their interests and their goals are most fully satisfied. No one can influence us or tell us how to try a case or not to question somebody," said Giardino.
Even once a defendant is convicted, the LSSS still has an obligation to the service member. The results of a trial all go through a review process to make sure the proceedings followed the letter of the law. "Even though a Marine has been convicted, that's not the final say on it," said Durden. "An appellate court gets to look at it."
During the appeal, a second layer of military justices ensure the trial followed all the proper procedures, and may even consider evidence unavailable at the original trial.
One Marine who plays a part in this process, Pfc. Cody Nathaniel, a review clerk with LSSS, says that the exacting attention to detail shown during each step of the legal process reflects the personal and professional concern they bring to work each day.
"In LSSS as a whole, we do care. We care about them because they're Marines," said Nathaniel. "Even though they might have done something and they are getting court-marshaled, we still treat them like people and respect them. Just because they're here in this building, we don't want them to think we're out to get them. We're here to help them too."
Only through an impartial and ethical treatment of each and every case that passes through their jurisdiction, can LSSS ensure justice is done.
"You get to use the trust put into you as a barred attorney to help people. Whether it be a power of attorney for a husband or a wife, or a will, or prosecuting for the government and making sure that victims are given justice, or defending a client," said Durden. "The law is just a beautiful thing."