Judge Advocate General - etymology and use

“Judge Advocate General” means a military (uniformed) lawyer.

  1. Where did this term come from?
  2. Is “General” being used in the sense of “The senior person is the General and I am a Judge Advocate”? Or do they mean “General: applies to all things,” as in “I am a judge advocate qualified to act on all matters of law, because I am a Judge Advocate General.”
  3. How does one refer to individuals or groups?
    “The one judge advocate stared at the two judge advocates on the other side of the aisle,” or “The one judge advocate general stared at the two judge(s) advocate(s) general(s) on the other side of the aisle.” And what are three lawyers doing staring at each other across an apparently deserted aisle? Are they stranded?

Please let me know for which country and service your knowledge/ rule/ experience applies. I suspect usage may vary.

The Judge Advocate General is a person, not the organization. For example, the Navy Judge Advocate General is a Vice Admiral, and the Army JAG is a Lieutenant General. The organization is properly called the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Lower officers of the JAG Corps are called Judge Advocates. The word “general” is used in the second sense you guessed: they can bring general courts-martial, the “highest” sort.

I think Elendil’s Heir was a Navy Judge Advocate for a while. Hopefully, he’ll be along shortly.

It originates in Great Britain in the first two decades of the early 1700s.

It’s older than that. The phrase ‘judge advocate’ was in common use in England in the 1640s (as here), when the issue of martial law was, for obvious reasons, particularly topicial, and the OED has a cite for the phrase ‘Advocate General of the Army’ from 1679. This document from the (UK) National Archives has a section on the origins of the term.

In the US Army the JAG is a 3 star general. So the Judge Advocate General is in fact a general. The branch he commands is the US Army JAG Corps. The lawyers in the JAG Corps are SJAs not JAGs. SJA stands for Staff Judge Advocate. They are officers and lawyers but not generals.

He’s not called the Judge Advocate General because he’s a general, though. The first JAG was a lieutenant colonel.

If we are going to get technical about this there is, at least in the US Army, one Judge Advocate General who is the senior uniformed lawyer in the whole damned army. In my day that guy was a Major General (two stars) with two or three brigadier generals as deputies and assistants. There were then a whole swarm of colonels and lieutenant colonels who were the people in charge of specialty sections in major commands from the Department of the Army down to the theater armies – like US Army-Europe and US Army-Vietnam, the old Fifth Army at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
There was an additional swarm of colonels and lieutenant-colonels who were the senior lawyers in the operation commands, the corps, divisions and the like. These people were the Staff Judge Advocates of their commands, members of the commander’s personal staff. Personal staff means they had direct access to the commander without going through the various staff sections for personnel, intelligence, operations or logistics. Being the staff judge advocate to a commander who appreciated his SJA’s worth and function was one of the most satisfying jobs in the Army.
The rank and file of the Judge Advocate Generals Corps was a car load of young captains and veteran majors who tried the cases, wrote the papers, reviewed the contracts and did all the other stuff that came with being a uniformed lawyer. The new guys came on duty fresh from law school and a six or eight week course at the Judge Advocate General’s School-Army, which was and is co-located with the University of Virginia’s law school in Charlottesville, VA. If they already had a commission but no prior service there was a two week orientation at some near-by army post. If there was no prior commission and no prior service the new guy went through the basic officers course in one of the combat arms (in my day it was the Armor School at Fort Knox). Generally, the new guys came on duty as Judge Advocates as First Lieutenant, Army of the United States, but were given a temporary grade of captain with a few days of entry on active duty. In my day the obligated term for Judge Advocates was four years – and we were happy to do it to avoid leading an infantry platoon in one of the less pleasant places in Southeast Asia.
Supporting all these lawyers was a staff of warranted and enlisted people – the guys who actually ran the staff section, and kept the young officers out of trouble (or let them blunder into it if the personal relationship was like that). An old warrant officer and a veteran sergeant major save my butt one more than one occasion.

There is really two meanings to it. From the origin it meant similar to the term Attorney General. The person who has general power of attoney to represent the state in common law terms. Washington appointed William Tudor to be the Judge Advocate General to represent the Continental Army in all legal matters. As such he was on Washington’s personal staff. Nowadays the JAG still performs that duty to the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff. But along with it he is also a general in charge of one of the branches of the Army. Just like the Armor branch chief, Infantry branch chief etc. So his roles include both lawyery things and generaly things. I believe that answers 1 and 2.

As for 3, in the Army it is common to refer to Army lawyers as JAG officers since that is the name of their branch. But they are more properly called SJA or Staff Judge Advocates.

That is for the US Army only. The terms might be slightly different in the other services. The Army was the first to have a JAG (1775).

Here I am, but I have little to add. I never served in the military, and was never a JAG in any branch of the military (I looked into it a few years back for potential Reserve service but, alas, was already too old).