The United States Army Trial Defense Service (USATDS or TDS) is an independent unit within the Judge Advocate General's Corps, U.S. Army, and is part of the US Army Legal Services Agency (USALSA). The TDS motto is "Defending Those Who Defend America."
The Trial Defense Service headquarters is located in Arlington, Virginia, and is headed by a judge advocate Colonel. TDS headquarters consists of the Chief of TDS, the Deputy Chief, Legal Administrator Warrant Officer, and a number of supporting attorneys, paralegals, and administrative support staff. Under the Chief of TDS, there are nine active duty Regional Defense Counsels (RDC), each responsible for overseeing defense services within their own geographic region (see below). Each RDC oversees several Senior Defense Counsels (SDC), who are in charge of field offices & are responsible for providing defense services for a specific post, command, or area. Some field offices oversee geographically separated branch offices.
The Trial Defense Service provides conflict-free legal services to soldiers who are facing adverse criminal or administrative actions at no cost to the soldier. Unlike public defenders in civilian jurisdictions, there is no means test required to determine eligibility; all soldiers are entitled to TDS representation by virtue of being subject to the UCMJ. The various categories of representation fall into three priorities.
- Priority 1: Criminal representation at trials by court-martial is the top priority of TDS and takes precedence over all other actions. TDS counsel make motions, voir dire the panel, offer vidence, examine and cross-examine witnesses, present argument, and negotiate on their client's behalf.
- Priority 2: Assistance with administrative separations (actions to discharge soldiers prior to the end of their service), nonjudicial punishment, and summary courts-martial.
- Priority 3: All other actions, including advising soldiers of their rights as a suspect and responding to letters of reprimand. Priority 3 actions may also be handled by legal assistance attorneys, depending on the availability of TDS.
In the Army military justice system, the main decisionmaker is the general court-martial convening authority (GCMCA), usually a division, post, or area commander. Each GCMCA has a Staff Judge Advocate, who serves as the legal advisor to the general. The Staff Judge Advocate also supervises a number of subordinate attorneys assigned to his or her particular unit. Collectively, the attorneys assigned to a particular command are called the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.
Prior to the late 1970s, the duty of defense counsel was just another assignment within the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, much like the trial counsel (military prosecutor). To some, this created the appearance of a conflict of interest when two opposing counsel worked within the same office. To others, especially some soldier clients, the fact that their defense counsel wore the same unit patch as the prosecuting attorney and worked in the same building created the impression that their attorney was on the general's side and not theirs.
Between 1978 and 1980, the Army Chief of Staff approved an experimental program to determine whether it would be feasible to create a separate command solely for Army defense counsel. The pilot program was deemed a success, and in December 1980, the Trial Defense Service was born.
Because of the limited number of TDS attorneys (even the Army's largest installation, Fort Hood, Texas, only has around 10 TDS attorneys), the TDS organization was originally not large enough to have its own unit patch (Shoulder Sleeve Insignia). For 25 years, the TDS "unit patch" was the Department of the Army Staff Support patch, also worn by members of the US Army Safety Center and the Defense Commissary Agency. However, in August 2006, a distinctive unit patch for TDS was approved for wear. From the Institute of Heraldry's description: "The shield-shaped patch reflects the nature of legal defense work. The sword supporting scales of justice represents the unit's mission to defend soldiers at courts-martial and separations boards; seeking justice for all soldiers. The sword also signifies that Trial Defense Service personnel are soldiers as well as lawyers. The glory, mullet, and the red border are adapted from the Department of the Army Staff Support patch previously authorized for wear by the Trial Defense Service, and provides a historical link to its organizational heritage."