On 3 August 2019, The Judge Advocate General (TJAG), Lieutenant General (LTG) Charles N. Pede, co-hosted, along with the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the service TJAGs, and the Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, a dinner commemorating the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Military Justice Act of 1968. What follows is an excerpt from LTG Pede’s remarks.
What we celebrate tonight is a historic legal moment that could simply have passed without notice—without any fanfare.
‘Beginning this morning, the subcommittees will hold 6 days of hearings on 18 bills designed to improve the quality of military justice. The bills would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice . . . relating to military courts . . . to ensure that military personnel appearing before such courts . . . receive all the rights, privileges and safeguards guaranteed every American citizen under the Constitution.’ [Senate Report, 89th Congress. Tuesday, 28 January 1966.]
And so, the Justice Act of 1968 began, and with it, the birth of judicial independence in our justice system.
Celebrating historic legal events is important. These celebrations serve as an invigorating reminder of where we were—and the distance traveled. Celebrations like this one also have a sort of elbow-in-the-rib quality that ensures we don’t take special moments for granted—that we don’t get complacent.
Important evolutions in the law are susceptible to memory lapses—often quickly, if the evolution is particularly successful. Some changes are subtle; others tectonic. Sometimes you don’t know you are living through an evolution until it has passed you by. Generations can forget easily the hard-fought battles of those upon whose shoulders they stand.
And so, it could have been with the Justice Act of ’68—which came into force this month in 1969—fifty years ago—and just nineteen years after the genuinely tectonic innovations of our Uniform Code in 1950. It could have been another forgotten milestone. We could have passed it by without notice.
But our judicial independence is our lifeblood. It is the heart of the rule of law. Independence from interference—whether inside the well of the courtroom or outside on the streets where our judges and their Families live. Having spent a good portion of our professional lives building rule of law capacity in foreign lands, we must never forget that by every measure, our judiciary lives and works in safety—free from the pressures that might compromise its independence. We must take nothing for granted.
And, there is no doubt, we’re often accused of being slow to change—reluctant to lean forward. I enjoyed two notable observations made recently about the Army.
The first was that the Army is 244 years old—unhampered by 244 years of progress. Second, it was noted that if you strand three Army officers on an island—within two weeks they’ll be working nights and weekends.
While these notions have a light-hearted ring of truth, nothing could be further from the truth about our justice system—which in my mind is the most progressive, enlightened justice system in the world.
What we celebrate tonight is a reflection of the vitality of our justice system. The innovation we know now as our independent trial judiciary was born in 1969. It is now a fixture on our landscape today—but not so then. Much like the birth of our mighty Trial Defense Service—or the birth of the still embryonic Special Victims’ Counsel Program. Change in the law—evolutions or revolutions—are what we mark this evening as a collective purposeful bar. On behalf of all of our hosts, please reflect on this important moment—our judicial independence is only owed to those who strive daily to sustain it.
Let me close where I began—the blessings of the rule of law flow directly from the success or failure of each us as we practice law—daily. Whether that be in forward areas—or here at home. We celebrate tonight a remarkable innovation in military justice—whose success is illustrated by how natural, graceful, and expected judicial independence is today. TAL