The Edmond Sun

State News

February 3, 2014

Shepherds of justice: Vance Staff Judge Advocate’s office handles all things legal for personnel

ENID, Okla. — Flight, the primary business of Vance Air Force Base, is governed by Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion, first set forth in 1665.

For every other aspect of law, the men and women at Vance rely on the 71st Flying Training Wing Staff Judge Advocate’s office.

 The base legal office is like any lawyer’s office in any city in the nation. Vance’s lawyers and paralegals help clients draw up wills and powers of attorney, deal with landlord-tenant disputes and fill out their tax returns. But Vance’s lawyers also can be called on to become defense attorneys or prosecutors.

The Vance SJA office plays three primary roles. First, it helps commanders deal with misconduct and to maintain good order and discipline.

“People look at us primarily as the shepherds or the stewards of the military justice program,” said Lt. Col. Theodore Richard, 71st Flying Training Wing staff judge advocate.

Second, it provides legal assistance to military members, their family and retirees.

And finally, it “[enables] legal mission accomplishment,” Richard said. Commanders always must carry out their mission under constraints of the law, so the Vance staff judge advocate’s office makes sure “[it knows] what those boundaries are.”

Besides local, state and national laws, airmen must adhere to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the set of regulations governing men and women of all branches. The Vance legal office works hand in hand with commanders to make sure the UCMJ is upheld, and to deal with situations in which it is not.

“The commander is the one who is accountable for good order and discipline within their unit or their area of responsibility,” Richard said. “If they are going to be accountable for that type of good order and discipline, they need the authority to deal with it at the same time.”

That’s where the UCMJ comes in. In the civilian world if you are late to work, neglect your job or smart off to your boss, you might get fired. In the military, those offenses could result in a loss of rank, a cut in pay or a dishonorable discharge.

“It’s not like we’re constrained by the UCMJ,” Richard said. “We’re enabled by the UCMJ.”

An example of how the UCMJ supplants local laws would be an airman serving in Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana now is legal. Using marijuana remains illegal under the UCMJ, however, so an airman caught smoking pot would still be in trouble.

“We can still prosecute that as an offense,” said Capt. Megan Schmid, Vance’s deputy SJA. By the same token, if an airman commits a crime in Garfield County and another elsewhere, the Vance SJA office can prosecute both cases.

“We’re able, in the military, to have jurisdiction over our people, no matter where they are,” Schmid said.

When accused of offenses that would get you fired at a civilian job, airmen have the option of facing a court-martial or an Article 15 hearing. In an Article 15 hearing, the airman goes before his or her commander, who then decides guilt or innocence, subject to appeal.

Military justice has evolved over the decades, Richard said, culminating with the adoption of the UCMJ in 1950.

“It used to be said in the early part of the 20th century that military justice was an oxymoron, because there was no such thing,” he said.

Commanders used to have the authority to court-martial a subordinate just because they didn’t like them, said Richard. No longer. Now the UCMJ provides for the rights of the accused as well as those doing the accusing. In fact Miranda Rights — among them the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney — were first assured by the UCMJ.

“The military system pre-dates the civilian system in giving people that right,” said Richard. “There’s a lot of fairness and protections that are now built into the process. Our military system is very much parallel to the (civilian) system people are used to. If we do prosecutions without justice it’s actually bad for morale, because people aren’t going to think they’re going to get a fair shake.”

An airman accused of a crime is entitled to an Article 32 hearing, which Richard called a cross between a preliminary hearing and a grand jury proceeding. The military has prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys, as well as an appellate court and a civilian court that sits atop it. Ultimately, decisions can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our system is very fair, and our job is to keep it that way,” Richard said.

Airmen being tried with misdemeanors face a special court-martial, while felony cases require a general court-martial. The accused has the option of trial by jury, where military members decide the sentence in case of a conviction, or by judge, who would then decide not only guilt or innocence, but the sentence as well.

Whatever commander convened the court-martial used to have total authority to set aside verdicts, but no longer. That recently was changed by Congress.

Courts-martial don’t happen often at a small base like Vance, but last summer there were two. One airman was convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography, while the other was found guilty of having sex with girls younger than 16. The sex acts for which the airman was charged took place off base, but the airman was tried in military rather than civilian court.

“The military always retains jurisdiction over an individual,” said Richard. “It is Air Force policy that we always prefer jurisdiction of a case.”

Vance’s legal office thus prosecuted the airman after consultation with the Garfield County District Attorney’s office.

“In that case, we felt it was appropriate for us to do it,” said Richard, largely because Vance security forces officers and the base’s Office of Special Investigations were the primary investigating officers on the case.

The Vance SJA office and local prosecutors have concurrent jurisdiction over the entire base. If a civilian commits a crime on base, like driving under the influence, the perpetrator could be prosecuted by the military in federal magistrate court in Oklahoma City.

All legal assistance provided to military members, their families and retirees is free.

The list of services provided by the Vance SJA office is wide. Schmid calls it “potpourri law.”

Airman deploying overseas or on temporary assignment want powers of attorney so a friend or family member can handle their legal affairs while they are gone. Airmen often need help with landlord-tenant disputes, particularly when it comes to getting their security deposit back. There are family law issues like divorce and child custody. The office even provides notary services.

“It’s a service for airman who need help,” Richard said.

The Vance legal office executes a number of wills for airmen, and especially for retirees.

“We even go where they are if they are home-bound,” said Jean Null, court reporter and legal technician for the Vance SJA office. “We’ve gone to hospitals and six hours later, they are gone.”

“Customer service means a lot to us,” Richard said. “If somebody needs something after hours, we’ll do our best to help them out.”

“That is one of the great parts about legal assistance,” said Schmid. “They (clients) leave here feeling a sense of relief.”

The Vance SJA office is concerned with anything on base that deals with the law, advising commanders from the squadron level all the way up to the wing commander. Vance’s legal team advises commanders on fiscal law, labor law, environmental law, contract law and ethics, among other areas.

Contract law is a particular area of emphasis, given the fact most base services are provided by contractors.

“Over half of every dollar the government spends is on a contract somewhere,” Richard said. “It’s important that we get it right.”

The Vance legal office works closely with the base’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. In fact, Richard developed a training program for the SARC that has gone Air Force-wide.

Richard and Schmid are the only two attorneys in the Vance legal office, so they rely heavily on the office’s paralegals — Staff Sgt. Erica McKissick and Airman 1st Class Shafiyquca Gause.

“They do a lot of legal assistance,”  Richard said.

McKissick also supervises the base’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, which offers free federal and state income tax preparation for members of Team Vance.

The final member of the Vance SJA team is 2nd Lt. Logan Fleming, who is assigned to the office as a legal assistant while he awaits reassignment after leaving pilot training.

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