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News | Feb. 18, 2014

Navy Lawyer Expands Horizons at Sea Practicing Operational Law

By Lt. Theresa Donnelly, PHIBRON ONE/Boxer ARG Public Affairs

From leaving the turmoil of a war-torn nation following the break-up of the Soviet Union, to now teaching thousands of Navy and Marine Corps operators in the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group (BOXARG) the law of armed conflict,  Lt. Givi Tibaneli, a Navy judge advocate, is on an eight-month deployment practicing a unique and specialized form of his profession.

Emigrating at the age of ten from the country of Georgia, Tibaneli says his experiences witnessing lawlessness and corruption propelled him to direct his studies to law and policy as well as contribute to his new country.

“I’ve always held the rule of law in high regard and how those laws were implemented throughout the world,” said Tibaneli. “Serving my country was a way for me to give back to the United States for the opportunity that this country provided my family,” he said.

Giving back to others has always been a part of Tibaneli’s life. While attending University of California, Hastings College of Law, Tibaneli volunteered with the “Hastings to Haiti Partnership,” an organization that was devoted to advancing the rule of law and human rights in Haiti by supporting the country’s legal education and engaging in human rights advocacy. He helped the group through fundraising for annual working trips to the country, hosting clinics and performing legal research. After graduating from law school, Tibaneli chose to join the Navy because he wanted to serve and practice operational law. Operational law encompasses multiple legal areas such as law of armed conflict, rules of engagement, treaties, and commander’s guidance. Operational legal counsel is crucial in the Navy, which deals with complex missions and politically sensitive topics such as disputed territories, strait transits and international coalition operations. 

Following his studies in law school, Tibaneli served for approximately a year and a half as trial counsel (prosecutor) at Navy Base Ventura County. Recognizing his interests and potential, Tibaneli was nominated by his commanding officer at the Navy Region Legal Service Office (RLSO) to leave his first tour early and report as the staff judge advocate (SJA) for Commander, Amphibious Squadron (CPR1).  CPR-1 is composed of three amphibious assault ships that carry Marines and aircraft in order to perform missions across the full spectrum of military operations.

“My experiences here have been very positive. I’ve enjoyed it both professionally and personally. I particularly enjoy operational law because it’s something that is unique and can’t be practiced outside the Navy,” said Tibaneli.

Shortly after the Boxer left for deployment, Tibaneli took on the challenge of qualifying as the officer of the deck (OOD) in an effort to better understand the circumstances naval officers face while operating a warship. He has already completed initial watchstander qualifications and time permitting, hopes to become fully qualified by the end of deployment. Obtaining his OOD qualification means that Tibaneli will have a first-hand perspective of the legal challenges ship handlers face while operating at sea. “I noticed when I was giving briefs to watchstanders about rules of engagement and various scenarios that people listen more carefully when you have your own experiences to draw upon, which makes you a better lawyer. Studying for OOD makes me a better legal advisor and naval officer,” he said. Tibaneli hopes that his approach to this specialized area of law will encourage more operators to proactively seek legal counsel and appreciate the valuable resource a judge advocate can for the staff.  

To be effective, the afloat staff judge advocate must be part of the wardroom – a naval officer whose dedication to the mission is recognized by fellow deployed personnel.  By gaining the confidence of the commander and the commander’s department heads, the staff judge advocate makes himself not just a lawyer, but a problem solver, who is then brought into all meetings and interactions, not just strictly legal ones.  In this way, the staff judge advocate is able to shape command decision-making, and avoid developing problems before they impact operations instead of trying to fix them afterwards.

“Providing good legal advice offers the commander a much more comprehensive analysis of the problem prior to making a decision. It’s a misperception when people think that you can only go to legal when the situation has gone bad,” he said.
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