Justice News

Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General William J. Baer Delivers Remarks at the Naval Justice School
Newport, RI
United States
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Monday, September 12, 2016

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, and thank you for that kind introduction.  It’s an honor to be here with you today. I appreciate the efforts of Captain [Shannon] Kopplin and her team in making this visit possible, and am grateful for the opportunity to spend a day at Naval Station Newport, learning a little bit more about the school-house, and the great work you all are doing. 

I’d like to recognize Peter Neronha, the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, who we’re privileged to have join us today.  As the U.S. Attorney, Peter serves as the chief federal law enforcement officer in the state, and has been a reliable partner in advancing access to justice to servicemembers and veterans.  Peter was recently re-appointed by the Attorney General to serve a second two-year term on the Advisory Committee of United States Attorneys – a tremendous honor.  And there, he’s provided valuable insight into crafting policies relating to cybercrime and terrorism.  We appreciate his time, and that he’s here shows something of the commitment this entire department has to supporting you as you begin your service not only as officers in your respective branches, but also as officers of the court.

I understand that the Basic Lawyer Course (BLC) is about 10 weeks long, and that this semester of the Legalman Paralegal Education Program is a little over 3½ months.  I’m not sure if you had any choice in selecting dates, but you couldn’t have done much better than August and September in New England.  I had a chance this morning to see a little bit of the Naval Justice School, and it’s an inspiring, picture-perfect place.  I hope you’ve spent some much-deserved time enjoying your summer, while appreciating that you are at an exceptionally important juncture in your professional career.  

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of September 11th.  And while nearly all of you were in elementary school in 2001, you are positioned to appreciate the significance of that day in ways most Americans never will.  You’re part of the less than .5 percent of the public who volunteered to join the military in a time of war.  By choice, you chose to protect and defend the United States by pursuing our nation’s exceptional commitment to justice.  As you complete LPEP or BLC and move to your first duty station, I’d encourage each of you to reflect on what brought you to decide that you would serve your country by serving justice.  I suspect that, at some level, it’s the same motivating force that animates the attorneys I work with at the Department of Justice.  Service to country, to be sure, but also, a desire to right wrongs – to help those who lack the knowledge, skill-set and ability to advocate on their own behalf, to prosecute wrong-doers and to ensure that liberty and justice for all has substantive meaning for those in uniform and for all of American society. 

While a few of you may find yourselves working on Law of War issues in Kabul or Baghdad, most of you will be joining a Region Legal Service Office.  Whether it’s a family law issue, a car repossession, a landlord-tenant dispute or a cellular telephone contract concern, for the sailors and marines with whom you’ll be working, you’ll come to represent their first, and best hope to resolve what are often very real, and serious problems.  That level of responsibility is something your peers in the private sector may never experience.  The day-to-day challenges of legal services and trial advocacy can be overwhelming, but you will quickly appreciate that every day, you can, and will, make a real difference to your colleagues in uniform.

I understand that in BLC, you’ve covered – at least briefly – the laws intended to protect servicemembers and their families: USERRA, SCRA and UOCAVA.  You, as JAG officers, will likely be the first touch-point in hearing about behavior that may implicate these statutes.  The Department of Justice – either through our Civil Rights Division in D.C. or the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, like Peter’s here in Rhode Island – is charged with enforcing them. 

I’m not going to give you another lecture on the substantive and procedural elements of these laws, but I’d like to share some of the personal stories of the lives we together have affected by making sure these laws were enforced.  Sometimes studying the elements of a particular tort or crime in the abstract removes it from its real-world application.  Hopefully, hearing about the collective work we do to level the economic playing field will highlight the measurable impact we – to include you, as members of the JAG Corps – can have in being effective advocates for our clients.  If nothing else though, this should at least provide you a refresher for your October exam.

For active-duty personnel, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA, is the law you’re most likely to encounter. Passed in 2003, its primary purpose is to ease the financial burdens on servicemembers and, in certain circumstances, their spouses and dependents, so that they can “devote their entire energy to the defense needs of the Nation.”  Whether you’re undergoing a Permanent Change of Station and need to terminate a residential lease, or deploying and wish to cap interest rates on pre-service credit card debt, automobile loan or mortgage, the SCRA has a long list of provisions that provide relief in wide variety of situations, to even include issues such as life insurance, income tax payments, installment contracts, and civil judicial proceedings

By way of example, in 2007, Navy Lieutenant Yahya Jaboori, based in Norfolk, was deployed to Iraq and, after returning home, found that his vehicle had been towed and sold, without his knowledge, and without the towing company first obtaining a court order.  That’s a violation of the SCRA.  The Navy brought this matter to the Department of Justice and, in the very first case filed by the Civil Rights Division since receiving enforcement authority in 2006, the department secured $75,000 in relief for Lieutenant Jaboori.

To give another example, a few years ago, some servicemembers thought that they were being charged excess interest on their student loans.  They reported what they believed to be a violation of SCRA and their complaints made their way to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Servicemembers Affairs.  The investigation was referred to the Department of Justice and our investigation determined that Sallie Mae – a company with which many of you are familiar – had failed to reduce interest rates on loans held by 77,795 servicemembers.  Two years ago, we finalized a settlement with the company for $60 million.  Nearly 78,000 checks refunding excess interest were mailed out, 12 right here to servicemembers stationed in Newport and, to bring it even closer to home, one for $1,139 to Kyle Scherer, a Major in the Army Reserve and this year, a White House Fellow in my office at the Department of Justice.

Like Kyle, some of you may transition to a reserve component at the conclusion of your service obligation.  There, deployments can be even more disruptive, as you may be asked to leave your civilian career for a year or more.  In 1994, following the Gulf War, Congress passed a law specifically meant to address many of the issues those citizen-soldiers dealt with when redeploying.  In part a response to an earlier Supreme Court case, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, among other things, shifted the burden of proof from the servicemember to the employer, as it related to discriminatory actions in the workplace.  For lawyers called to active duty, we and our employers are likely to be sensitive to the requirements of USERRA.  But many Reservists are at businesses – large and small – that may have never before dealt with a mobilizing employee.  Often, it just takes a letter from a JAG to educate employers on their obligations to servicemembers.

Sometimes the employer gets stubborn and we need to get involved.  Earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts brought suit on behalf of Thomas Shea, a Navy Reservist and ironworker who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain and Kuwait.  His civilian employer refused to credit his pension and annuity funds for the time he spent abroad – a position that was in violation of USERRA.  Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Senior Chief Petty Officer Shea received $180,000 in delinquent pension and annuity payments, as well as credit for his military service with regard to his future pension payments.  This is money he was due and in nearly every single deployment of Reserve or National Guard units, we – or more accurately, you – will see some USERRA issue arise.  It could be a raise, a bonus, continued access to health care, or any number of the other circumstances addressed by the statute.  Again, while we’re hopeful claims can be resolved through the Staff Judge Advocate or Department of Labor mediation, know that we’re ready, willing and able to assist, as needed.

A third law we enforce is the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA.  As you may have heard, there’s an election coming up.  UOCAVA ensures that wherever you are in the world, if you’re serving abroad, you’re able to register and vote absentee in federal elections, as well as in most state and local contests.  The various regulations regarding voter registration – especially for military personnel who are relocating every few years – can admittedly be confusing, and that’s where your expertise as a lawyer will pay dividends.  If you think the rights of your fellow servicemembers are being violated, we’re here to help.  Just last year, the Department of Justice filed suit in Illinois to ensure that citizens of that State living abroad had sufficient time to vote in a special election to fill the Congressional seat of Representative [Aaron] Schock, a House member who had resigned a year into his fourth term.  Whatever your politics, voting is a chance to have your voice heard, and we’re committed to making sure that in this upcoming general election, every servicemember is afforded the opportunity to cast his or her ballot.

Whether it’s UOCAVA, SCRA or USERRA, the Department of Justice is ready, willing and able to help.  But let me go back to a point I mentioned earlier.  We largely rely on you and the paralegals you work with, through your chain-of-command, for referrals. 

And we want to make that process easy and reliable.  A year and a half ago, my office announced the creation of the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative.  It’s led by Silas Darden, who’s here with us today and is still serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.  Under his direction, the initiative is building upon the various enforcement efforts I’ve described by coordinating the department’s work on behalf of servicemembers, and working closely with state and local partners to ensure we know where to most effectively deploy resources.  In March of this year, we re-launched the initiative’s website, servicemembers.gov, and included an online form that you’re able populate to relay legal issues directly to the initiative’s staff.  As of this week, we’ve received 243 inquiries, all of which receive close attention, and many of which resulted in further action by the Department of Justice.

Last month, I had the privilege of visiting with marines at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.  There, I announced the next step in our Servicemembers Initiative: the intent of the Attorney General to have all 93 U.S. Attorneys designate an Assistant U.S. Attorney in their office to serve as a liaison to both the initiative, and their districts’ military populations and legal assistance offices.  In San Diego, we’re already seeing the fruits of this collaboration.  Just a few weeks ago, the Civil Rights Division received a USERRA case, and because the department now had an established point of contact for matters impacting servicememebrs, the lead attorney at Civil Rights was able to work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California to quickly move the case forward.  We hope that this designee from the Department of Justice will serve as yet another resource and link to make sure that the rights of every soldier, sailor, airman and marine are protected.  

Thank you again for having me.  One of the highlights of my job is meeting with Americans from all over the country, and from all walks of life.  Here, like at Miramar, I’m impressed and inspired by your sacrifice, and would just like to thank you again for your service.  Some of my favorite and most productive conversations during my time as Associate Attorney General have been with servicemembers, and it really is true that we, as the Department of Justice, can’t bring cases we don’t know about.  We recognize that as members of the JAG Corps, you’ll be carrying a heavy ruck, particularly in that period before, during and immediately after a deployment.  Where we can help lighten that burden, we will.