Ongoing Adventures: Captain David A. Wagner '82
|Judge Wagner and Dean Rogers at the Washington alumni luncheon in March, 2005|
"A JAG Corps career is the purest practice of law because you get paid and promoted without regard for generating billable hours or bringing in clients," says Judge David A. Wagner '82, who maintains that no other career route would have given him as much personal satisfaction. The military, he says, is characterized by mentoring, job security, autonomy, and a clear sense of mission.
That sense of mission was most pronounced in 1990 when David reported aboard the U.S.S. Wisconsin, just a month before the battleship deployed to the Persian Gulf in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In addition to his role as legal advisor to the ship's commanding officer, he participated in drafting rules of engagement for maritime operations in Desert Shield and helped plan for combat operations during Desert Storm. As a gunfire director for two of the ship's guns, he also got to put that planning into action. "Every judge advocate wants to participate in at least 'one big thing' and this was mine," says David.
The experience was sobering. "Growing up, we often glamorize war and don't focus on the reality," says David, "Combat gives you an appreciation for the sacrifices made over the years by many young men and women, especially those who don't come back. Watching 18 and 19-year-olds performing flawlessly in the stress of combat and witnessing their kindness to the Iraqis and Kuwaitis was a transformative experience."
Throughout his career, David has been impressed with the mentoring he received and he is now reciprocating. "We exist on mentoring," he says. David initially chose the military because he knew he wanted to litigate. The training and mentoring he received led to his managing a full caseload within his first year as a legal assistance attorney. He quickly rose to trial defense counsel, prosecutor, staff judge advocate, operational law advisor, military trial judge, and ultimately appellate military judge. He earned his LL.M at the JAG School in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1995, specializing in International Law.
"Mentoring is expected of everyone," he says, "but it's particularly challenging for military judges." This is because sitting judges cannot provide advice on specific cases or show favoritism. The more senior judge advocates work with groups of young lawyers and although the lawyers oppose one another in the courtroom and compete for the limited number of promotion slots, they are promoted or not promoted in groups. David says, "It's an ideal environment for mentoring."
Always on the look out for new mentees, David has conducted on-campus interviewing at Moritz. He hopes to return this fall. He feels that the education he received at Moritz prepared him especially well for the challenges and variety he has seen in the JAG Corps and hopes to draw new talent into the fold before he returns to civilian life.
One of nine appellate judges on the Navy Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington , D.C. , David and his peers handle an average annual docket of about 2,100 cases. About 60 percent are merit submissions involving no specified allegation of error by the trial court, but requiring mandatory review of law and fact under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The remaining are a mixed bag of typical criminal appellate issues, often including oral argument before the Court.
What surprised David most about becoming a trial judge was that the difficult part was not determining the guilt or innocence of a defendant, but the sentencing. "When you get to sentencing," he says, "you have total discretion and you are impacting the life of the defendant and his or her family. My best days were when I could craft a sentence that met society's need for retribution and, at the same time, did not crush the defendant. It's a very good day when you know you got through to someone and stopped the downward slide."
A military career provides a sense of job security and permanence, according to David, despite the frequent transfers. David and his wife, the former Kara Leigh Luckenbach of Corpus Christi, Texas, have used those moves and visits to friends abroad to make the world a hometown for their three sons. With 735 judge advocates in the Navy service, billets will open up all over the world and there is no doubt, David's excellent adventure will continue. Classmates and friends wishing to contact Judge Wagner can reach him at email@example.com.