In 1775, the Continental Congress enacted the Articles of Conduct governing the ships and men of the Continental Navy. However, soon thereafter, all of these ships were sold and the Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded. In July 1797, Congress enacted the Rules for Regulation of the Navy as a temporary measure after authorizing construction of six ships. In 1800, Congress enacted a more sophisticated code adopted directly from the British Naval Code of 1749. There was little or no need for lawyers to interpret these simple codes, nor was there a need for lawyers in the uncomplicated administration of the Navy prior to the Civil War.
However, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles named a young assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia to present the Government's case in complicated courts-martial during the Civil War. Without any statutory authority, Secretary Welles gave Nathaniel Wilson the title of "Solicitor of the Navy Department," making him the first House Counsel to the United States Navy.
By the Act of March 2, 1865, Congress authorized "the President to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, for service during the rebellion and one year thereafter, an officer of the Navy Department to be called the 'Solicitor and Naval Judge Advocate General.'" Congress maintained the billet on a year-to-year basis by amendments to the Naval Appropriations Acts. In 1870, Congress transferred the billet to a newly established Justice Department with the title of Naval Solicitor.
In 1878, Colonel William Butler Remey, USMC, became the first uniformed chief legal officer of the Navy. Colonel Remey was able to convince Congress that the Navy Department needed a permanent uniformed Judge Advocate General and that Naval law was so unique that it was better to appoint a line officer of the Navy or Marine Corps. The bill to create the billet of Judge Advocate General of the Navy was signed in 1880. The Naval Appropriations Act of 1918 elevated the billets of Navy Bureau Chiefs and Judge Advocate General to Rear Admiral; and in July 1918, Captain George Ramsey Clark was appointed as the first Judge Advocate General to hold the rank of Rear Admiral. In 1947, the Navy created a "law specialist" program to allow line officers restricted duty to perform legal services.
By the Act of May 5, 1950, Congress required that the Judge Advocate General be a lawyer. The Act required each Judge Advocate General of any service be a member of the bar with no less than eight years of legal duties as a commissioned officer. The Act also enacted the first Uniform Code of Military Justice.
By 1967, the Navy had 20 years of experience with the law specialists program. However, there was an increasing pressure to create a separate corps of lawyers. That year, Congress decided to establish the Judge Advocate General's Corps within the Department of the Navy. The legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 8, 1967, and ensured Navy lawyer's status as members of a distinct professional group within the Navy, similar to physicians and chaplains.
Today, the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps is a world-wide organization of approximately 2,340 personnel (including over 830 judge advocate officers) providing legal and policy advice on legal matters in the areas of military justice, administrative law, environmental law, ethics, claims, admiralty, operational and international law, national security litigation and intelligence law, general litigation, and legal assistance.