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Refusing to Practice Law on a Conveyor Belt in Military Justice

Facing military justice and court-martial for any offense, whether guilty or not guilty, must be one of the most stressful times of any service member’s life. Even considering combat and the demands of what’s occurred over the last decade.

As a uniformed defense counsel at Fort Hood, Texas between 2008 and 2010, when Fort Hood’s docket was the busiest in the U.S. Army for military justice, and consequently in all of the services, we endured a high volume of clients (at least by military standards, recognizing that civilian public defenders handle hundreds of cases).

The line of persons facing nonjudicial punishment circled the temporary buildings that housed offices for ten military defense counsels, though often we only had manning for six of those slots. “Chapter” day brought similar stampedes as the military was quickly shuffling those no longer needed from “the surge.”

Though admittedly I recall only a handful of nonjudicial punishment clients in light of the volume that came through on any given day, there is one I will never forget.

The offense on his Article 15 was for adultery. The packet contained only a statement the client made to military chain of command, but he was never read his Article 31(b) rights. I scanned the packet, called the trial counsel, and verified the statement was not properly considered in support of the offense. The trial counsel conceded the point and asked that I set the packet aside and assured me the “NJP” would go away. I informed the client of his fortune and hurried to the next folder.

Problem solved. NEXT!

I did not realize that this young man’s last care was the nonjudicial punishment. His problem was not legal at all, though it was a symptom. I did not take the time. Or rather, I did not make the time. To inquire or to care.

Candidly, I did not think of him long before shuffling him out the door and onto the next client encounter.

That is, until my phone rang two days later, and it was the trial counsel from the jurisdiction that had agreed to cancel out his Article 15.

The trial counsel needed the packet back and matter-of-factly reported that the young man was found hung by a rope off the back porch of his on-post housing.

Learning of his suicide was one of few defining moments in my professional life.

I vowed I would not practice law “on a conveyer belt” any longer. I told my superior as much. And I never did after that day. Not in uniform. And not now as a civilian.

People matter. They have legal issues, and I am quite effective at attacking those problems. But there is a person connected to each issue, and the person will persist (one hopes and prays) long after the legal issue is done and forgotten, no matter how it resolves.

When I am required to report bad news to clients (usually that efforts to have the case not charged did not produce the result we had been working hard for), I employ a safety plan. Each and every time.

We talk about their support structure. I ask questions and probe into their wellness. I tell them that they are not alone.

And in some of the darkest moments for a minority of clients they tell me they feel that God has abandoned them.

When these are despondent, I tell them that I want them to know God’s love, that he has not forsaken them, and that I want to act as an instrument of God’s love for them. I want to help them feel God’s love through my work on their behalf.

I tell them the story of my Article 15 client from Fort Hood, Texas. And I assure them that I cannot lose another client. Not one more. Not ever.

I will not practice law “on a conveyer belt.” And I won’t allow anyone in my firm to either. People matter to us. Every client. Each one. And they always will.