District Legal Officer
The chief functions of the District Legal Officer during the months preceding Pearl Harbor were acting as legal adviser to the Commandant and conducting the legal business in connection with the acquisition of property for Naval activities in the district. Just after the war began, an assistant legal officer was added to his staff. As the legal affairs under the Commandant increased in volume, the staff was enlarged, and by 1943 the officer complement was eight; when the war ended, it was twelve.
Among the many functions performed by the District Legal Office, those relative to courts-martial were among the more important. Before considering those functions, however, a word is necessary in regard to the permanent General Courts-Martial convened in the Eighth Naval District.
The first permanent General Courts-Martial in the district during the last war was that ordered to convene by the Secretary of the Navy at the U. S. Naval Station, New Orleans, on 21 April 1943, or as soon thereafter as practicable.1 Three months later the Secretary of the Navy authorized the Commandant, Eighth Naval District, and Task Force Commander, Gulf Sea Frontier, to convene General Courts-Martial during the period of the present war.2 Pursuant to this authority, the Commandant
ordered a General Court-Martial to convene at the U. S. Naval Station, New Orleans, on 16 August 1943, or as soon thereafter as practicable, with the same members on this court as composed the one convened by the Secretary of the Navy.3 After the formation of the court by the Commandant, nearly all cases tried at the Naval Station were preferred by the Commandant. Only a few cases were sent by the Secretary of the Navy to the court that he had convened. Finally, the need for that court ceased entirely, and on 3 June 1944, after it had handled approximately one hundred cases, it was formally dissolved by the 3ecretary of the Navy.4
The number of cases sent to the court convened by the Commandant increased to such an extent that on 26 February 1945 a second court was created. Because of heavy loss of membership, however, it became evident that two courts could not be maintained. Consequently, on 6 April 1945, the second court was dissolved. The remaining court handled practically all cases in which the accused surrendered or was within the limits of the Eighth Naval District, except those cases which came under the cognizance of the Air Functional Training Commands. While the Air Commands activities in the district had their own courts, many cases which normally would have been tried by such courts were forwarded to the court convened by the Commandant. This court, together with the second court which existed for a short time, tried over 2500 cases prior to the end of the war with Japan.
Though the General Court-Martial was an independent activity under the Commandant, three officers who were attached to the court as judge advocates and three officers who were attached to it as permanent defense counsel were under the administrative supervision of the District Legal Officer. The judge advocates worked in conjunction with the District Legal Office in many respects. Before a case was forwarded to the judge advocates for trial, the charges and specifications were made out by the District Legal Office and signed by the convening authority. The responsibility for the correctness of all charges and specifications, however, rested on the judge advocate prosecuting the case. When depositions were desired by either the prosecution or the accused, the judge advocate prepared the direct and cross interrogatories and forwarded them to the District Legal Office, which in turn forwarded them to the Commandant of the appropriate naval district. If the deponent was in the Eighth Naval District, the District Legal Office, acting for the Commandant, Issued orders to some officer to take the deposition. After the completed record of a case was carefully checked by the judge advocate, it was signed by the court and then forwarded to the District Legal Office for review by the convening authority and subsequent forwarding to the Judge Advocate General for final review.
At the inception of the court, unless an accused requested specific counsel the Commandant appointed some officer lawyer then available to act as defense. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory since delays sometimes occurred as a result of the quest for counsel. Hence the appointment of permanent defense counsel. Through the District
Legal Office the convening authority permitted the defense counsel a wide latitude in the matter of pre-trial investigations, issuing temporary additional duty orders to the defense counsel when necessary for conducting these investigations. Personal pre-trial investigation was found to give a grasp of the facts involved which no amount of reading of signed statements contained in the file could give, and in at least two cases acquittals resulted from pre-trial investigation.
In preparing the charges and specifications for all cases tried at the General Court-Martial convened by the Commandant, the District Legal Office found about sixty percent of the cases to be absence offenses (absence over leave, absence without leave, and desertion), in many instances the absence being aggravated by missing ship or mobile unit. The remaining cases covered a wide variety of offenses, such as theft, joyriding, burglary, robbery, assaulting and striking superior officers while in the execution of the duties of their office, conspiracy, disobedience of orders, drunkenness, possession of forged leave papers, embezzlement, breaking arrest, polygamy, scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals, and conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. With Naval Courts and Boards as a form book and the Court-Martial Orders as decisions, the task resolved into fitting the facts in the particular case to a given charge containing legally sufficient allegations to state an offense. The task in absence cases became almost routine. Yet various situations arose, even in this type of case, to cause difficulty. For example, in the situation in which a man absented himself while en route between
stations, pursuant to delayed orders (delay to count as leave) the problem arose whether to charge absence over leave or absence without leave. Since the pertinent directives created some doubt as to whether such delay was actually leave, the situation was classed as a "doubtful case" and the charge "absent without leave" was made.5 A recent directive by the Bureau of Personnel made the distinction between absence over leave and absence without leave increasingly important as to the determination of the type of court the accused was to receive and, following that determination, the severity of his punishment.6 One charge of absence from the Naval service (the gist of the offense) might well supplant the two charges.
In offenses other than absence cases, many of the forms were taken directly from Naval Courts and Boards. However, with the increase in personnel of the Navy, the nature of the offenses became increasingly diverse. The latitude of the general charges (scandalous conduct and conduct to the prejudice) allowing charges of violation of the laws of the state in which the crime was committed made necessary, and justifiably so, constant research into the criminal laws of the states which make up the district for the purpose of considering charges based on their violation. The aspects of federal criminal laws and the relation of their violations to Naval court-martial procedure was also the basis of study.
Following the issuance of a directive by the Secretary of the
Navy,7 dated 24 July 1943, it became the duty of the District Legal Office to review the records in all general court-martial trials convened by the Commandant of the Eighth Naval District. The review embraced the determination whether there was sufficient proof to support a finding of the court, whether for any reason clemency should be exercised in the case, and whether the trial and the preparation of the record were in accordance with the required procedure in general court-martial cases.
The file accompanying each record included a social-history report on the accused prepared under the supervision of the District Prison Administration Officer. This gave a brief social background of the accused, his attitude toward the service, and his education and potentialities. Also Included was a report of a psychiatrist as to the mental and physical health of the accused, and the effect that confinement, if ordered, would have on his health. The statement of the accused, the social-history report, and some times a personal interview by the District Legal Officer were used as a basis for a recommendation to the Commandant as to the action to be taken on the sentence pronounced by the court. This recommendation might have been for an approval of the sentence, a reduction of the sentence, a reduction of the sentence with a probationary period, or perhaps a suspension of the sentence, pending the completion of a probationary period. In the event of an acquittal the record was checked for technical errors. If the review disclosed errors in the record that
could be corrected by the court, the record was returned to the court for correction. However, if no errors of form or substance were found, the evidence, the facts accompanying the record, and the sentence were considered before the District Legal Officer prepared a recommendation to the Commandant suggesting the action deemed appropriate to the particular case.
Following the action of the Commandant on the record, the District Legal Office prepared a publication that recited the charge upon which the accused was tried, the finding upon the charge, the action of the convening authority on the record, and the place of confinement, if any. Copies of this publication were then forwarded to the Legal Officer of the Coast Guard; Commanding Officer of the Personnel and Training Command, U. S. Naval Repair Base; Judge Advocate and Permanent Defense Counsel of the General Court; the place of confinement; the General Accounting Office of the Navy; the Judge Advocate General of the Navy; and all District Legal Offices in the continental United States. After the convening authority had acted upon the record, it was returned to the District Legal Office for final assembly; this office then forwarded the record to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy. The District Legal Office reviewed 120 general court-martial cases in the latter part of 1943, 1121 in 1944, and 1186 through 1 August 1945.
The District Legal Office also reviewed all summary court martial cases which came under the cognizance of the Commandant. It was the duty of the Commandant to take such action as he deemed appropriate
in all cases in which he was the immediate superior in command to the convening authority. Before acting upon the records submitted, he bad the case reviewed by the District Legal Officer. The inexperience of the members of many summary courts resulted in such common errors as the failure to allege jurisdiction in the specification, statement inconsistent with plea, the findings not properly recorded, illegal sentence, and omission of publication. When all errors had been rectified and the District Legal Officer had made any recommendation that he considered appropriate in regard to modification of the sentence, the record was presented to the Commandant for his action.
Administrative reports were another concern of the District Legal Office. In connection with administrative reports on the death of or injury to Naval personnel under unusual circumstances, the District legal Office frequently initiated action by requesting or directing an officer or a command near the scene of the Incident to investigate and make the report. Since many such officers or commands had had little or no experience in making such reports, they were referred to the appropriate section in Naval Courts and Boards and were advised to secure statements of witnesses and doctors' or coroners' reports, and to give an opinion as to whether the death or injury occurred in line of duty, and whether It was the result of misconduct. In addition, this office mailed to the officer or command that was to make the report a sample copy of an administrative report that was complete and in good form.
All administrative reports so requested or directed and those not
initiated by this office were reviewed here before being forwarded to the Judge Advocate General, and an opinion was rendered in the form of an endorsement in which this office agreed or disagreed with the basic report and its findings and opinions. Not infrequently, such reports were first returned to the investigator for more complete information or further investigation of particular features that were neglected.
Sometimes when Naval personnel from commands outside the New Orleans area were killed or injured under unusual circumstances in or near New Orleans, an officer from this office made the investigation and prepared the administrative report. In many cases in which the personnel involved were attached to an activity in New Orleans, this office assisted the officers making the investigation and report.
In appropriate cases as required by Naval Courts and Boards and directives thereon, the District Legal Office ordered Boards of Investigation to be convened. It was necessary in such cases to secure the officer personnel and then prepare a precept. In many instances, officers from this office were named as recorders on such Boards. From time to time, this office was called upon to advise the Board members on legal questions, procedure, and form. Boards of Investigation convened in the District were all reviewed in this office, and an endorsement was prepared agreeing or disagreeing with the findings, opinions, and recommendations, or pointing out defects.
The District Legal Office prepared various precepts for the Commandant. The most common precepts were those necessary to form:
- General Courts-Martial
- Boards of Investigation
- Courts of Inquiry
- Boards of Medical Survey
- Boards of Medical Examiners
- Sub-boards of Inspection and Survey
A new precept had to be prepared for the Commandant's signature whenever there were changes in personnel of any of the Boards already convened, or a change in the membership of the General Court-Martial.
Investigations of a wide variety were made by the District Legal Office. Officers from this office frequently investigated matters having legal or disciplinary features. Many recommendations for trial by general court-martial were incomplete, so that further investigation by this office was necessary. Witnesses had to be tracked down and statements obtained from them. When Naval personnel were detained by civil authorities in New Orleans or vicinity for crimes, this office investigated to determine the nature of and foundation for the charges; it sought to determine whether the man would receive a fair and impartial trial, and whether civil authorities would release the man to Naval authorities for disciplinary action. Such investigations were also requested or ordered by this office when Naval personnel were charged or tried by civil authorities elsewhere in the district.
Certain functions of the District Legal Office, such as the handling of admiralty cases, were in the field of commercial law. Subject to the supervision of the Judge Advocate General, the District Legal Office functioned in the handling of admiralty cases in all respects, including investigation, negotiation, and making recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy through the Judge Advocate General for the settlement of cases. Admiralty cases handled in the Eighth Naval
District Included several types:
- Collisions between Navy craft and private craft which gave rise to claims either for or against the Navy or, as in some cases, mutual claims.
- Cases of damage by private ships to Navy wharves and other shore structures. (Also included in this group was damage caused by Government-owned ships where there was protection and indemnity insurance carried by a commercial underwriter.)
- Cases of damage caused to privately owned wharves and shore structures by Naval vessels.
Admiralty work in the District Legal Office was a constantly expanding process. During the course of the war, other activities tended to relinquish participation in the procedure as the work of the Legal Office became established. Originally, the admiralty work in the Legal Office was primarily investigating, the negotiation of settlements being left largely to the Judge Advocate General. However, in the course of time, and with the expansion of the admiralty docket, negotiation was handled almost wholly by the District Legal Office, and as a result, all but few claims were settled amicably with parties involved.
Originally, there was considerable confusion as to admiralty cases occurring with respect to ships under the jurisdiction of the District Coast Guard Officer at St. Louis (primarily landing craft in transit on the Mississippi River from builders' yards to tide water) and the training bases of the Amphibious Training Command. However, liaison was effected whereby all ship cases occurring in the Eighth Naval District were handled by the District Legal Office.
In many cases, shore structures damaged by Naval craft were under lease to the Navy Department from private firms. In such cases complete
investigations were made by the District Legal Office and the results were forwarded with appropriate comment and recommendation via the Judge Advocate General to the Bureau of Yards and Docks, which was charged with the settlement of all claims on Navy leases.
In cases where the private interests acceded to the full Navy dais, collection was made and forwarded to the Judge Advocate General. Cases involving dispute which could not be solved by negotiation were forwarded to the Judge Advocate General for litigation. If the District Legal Office felt that the private interest had a just claim, such claim was forwarded with appropriate recommendations.
The proper handling of admiralty work entailed close liaison and cooperation with numerous activities, such as the Industrial Manager, who handled the surveying and repairing of all Navy craft damaged in collisions; with the Cost Inspector, who handled the auditing of all costs of repairs to damaged Navy craft and maintained records thereof; with the several commands under which Navy ships in collisions were operated; with the Bureau of Ships and the Industrial Manager with respect to Navy facilities damaged by private vessels; and with the District Coast Guard Officer, who was charged with the investigation of Merchant Marine casualties, such as collisions, and who provided, in almost every case, pertinent evidence concerning the circumstances of the collision.
Another function of the District Legal Office in commercial law was in handling automobile accident cases in which Naval personnel or property was involved. The volume of automobile accidents in this
category increased considerably during the war, doubtless because of the large increase in the number of vehicles serving activities under the Commandant. Approximately 325 such cases were disposed of between 1 January and 30 September 1945.
The District Legal Office examined leases of real estate submitted by the District Public Works Office in order to check the legality of the forms, and it prepared permits, licenses, and leases of real estate on information furnished by that office. In a few instances the District Legal Office assisted in taking over property for the Navy by condemnation pursuant to the right of eminent domain.
Reports of loss or possible compromise of registered publications which had been Issued by the Registered Publication Issuing Office, Eighth Naval District, were routed via the Commandant, Eighth Naval District, to the Chief of Naval Operations and therefore required a forwarding endorsement. It was the practice of the District Legal Office to prepare these endorsements, including therein recommendations for appropriate disciplinary action in each case. An inspection of the report was required in order to assure that it contained sufficient information to provide the Chief of Naval Operations with adequate ground upon which to reach a decision. When an insufficient report was disclosed, it was either returned to the originator or an Independent investigation was conducted by the District Legal Office. Any additional Information obtained by such an investigation was included in the forwarding endorsement. Reports of this nature averaged three or four a month.
The Legal Assistance office of the district was under the supervision of the District Legal Officer. The purpose of this office was to render legal advice and assistance to personnel of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard and their dependents. The scope of the assistance rendered encompassed all personal legal problems with a few exceptions. Prominent among these exceptions were matters arising out of or giving cause for disciplinary action. Requests for assistance by dependents against service personnel were another exception. All official matters were excluded from the jurisdiction of the legal assistance office. Because of these restrictions and the nature of the work, the main problems confronting the legal assistance office were in domestic relations, taxation (particularly income tax), and landlord and tenant relations. Another matter frequently arising was the preparation of personal documents, the majority of which were wills and powers of attorney.
In addition to the functions enumerated, the District Legal Officer performed various other services that required liaison with Federal, state, and city officials.
1. SecNav ltr. N08/Al7-ll(2) dtd. 13 Apr. 1943. 2. SecNav ltr. Al7-ll(l)/Al7-20 JAG:B:GLH:lh, dtd. 24 Jul. 1943. 3. ComEight ltr. Ser. 14624, dtd. 9 Aug. 1943. 4. SecNav Ltr. N08/A17-11(2) JAG:I:GLH:eeg, dtd. 3 Jun. 1944. 5. BuPers Manual, Art. C-4001(6):NC&B, Sec. 74. 6. BuPers CL 529-42. 7. SecNav ltr. A17-11(1), A17-20, dtd. 24 Jul, 1943.
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