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Alumni Newsmakers

Legal Leadership in the Fleet

Nanette DeRenzi, LLM ’94, was appointed the Navy’s newest deputy judge advocate general and commander, Naval Legal Service Command. She is the first two-star female attorney in U.S. history.

What does a girl raised in New Jersey’s quiet Pennsauken Township do when she grows up? If she is Nanette DeRenzi, LLM ’94, she becomes a two-star admiral and is appointed the Navy’s newest deputy judge advocate general and commander, Naval Legal Service Command.

Ms. DeRenzi received her latest assignment Aug. 14. It was a rewarding day for her and a positive signal to other women serving in today’s Navy: Ms. DeRenzi is the first woman promoted to the posts. From her commissioning through the JAG Corps Student Program in law school until her current assignment, she has proven her mettle.

In her new job, Ms. DeRenzi wears two hats. She works directly for the new Judge Advocate General, Vice Adm. James Houck. He is the principal military legal counsel to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and the chief of naval operations, and he leads the attorneys, enlisted legalmen, and civilian employees of the Navy JAG Corps community. Ms. DeRenzi is Mr. Houck’s deputy and commands a network of nearly 900 naval personnel and civilians who provide legal services to Navy commands, sailors, and their families worldwide.

“Our job is to run the JAG Corps community. We recruit, train, and assign people to the right job, and we have to do it efficiently to get the most out of our budget,” Ms. DeRenzi says.

“Many people think JAGs only prosecute or defend courts-martial cases, which we do. However, our legal services run the spectrum,” Ms. DeRenzi says. “We advise fleet commanders on matters ranging from international and maritime law to matters involving disciplinary issues. We provide service members and their families with legal assistance, such as preparing wills and resolving problems with leases. Our people are also supporting operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and the Horn of Africa.”

Ms. DeRenzi says she always wanted to be a lawyer. Joining the Navy wasn’t part of the picture until she graduated from Villanova University in 1983 and entered Temple University School of Law.

“My roommate at Villanova was a nursing student who joined the Navy after college and went to San Diego. She was having a ball as a Navy nurse, while I was at Temple studying. She mentioned that the Navy had lawyers, so I visited the legal office at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. I saw young officers prosecuting and defending different cases and getting a lot of experience. I thought I could join the Navy for a few years, get loads of experience, then get out,” Ms. DeRenzi says.

No one in Ms. DeRenzi’s family had a military background, and no one had moved from southern Philadelphia or southern New Jersey, so it took some persuasion before Ms. DeRenzi’s parents accepted her career decision. With her JD in hand, she entered the Navy in 1986. When an assignment brought her to Washington, D.C., her naval career gained a new dimension.

“I met someone at a JAG event who insisted that the wave of the future was environmental law. I entered GW Law School to earn an LLM in environmental law,” she explains.

She earned her LLM in 1994 and used it immediately. “I became a legislative counsel for environmental programs in the Office of the Chief of Legislative Affairs. I was working with Navy subject matter experts and congressional staffers to determine if proposed environmental legislation would impact Navy operations and if so, to assure any impacts would not be detrimental to naval operations.”

At this point, something happened that persuaded Ms. DeRenzi to continue her Navy career much further than she originally intended.

“The law changed to allow women to serve at sea on combatant ships,” Ms. DeRenzi says. “I wanted to go to sea. My next assignment was in San Diego to serve on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, which took me to the western Pacific and Arabian Gulf. I particularly enjoyed working with the battle group and being closer to tactical operations.

She received a second ship assignment in 2000 with the U.S. 3rd Fleet and then another in 2003 with the 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan. Her most cherished career moment came with the United States Southern Command and its work to help Colombia control drug trafficking. During her tenure, three American hostages held by a narco-terrorist group were rescued in a Colombian military operation after five years of captivity.

“I was one of a long line of lawyers supporting efforts to get them released and returned. When we got the word they were rescued in 2008, the room erupted in cheers and tears. I’ll never forget being part of that effort.”

Looking at her many posts vis-à-vis her LLM in environmental law, Ms. DeRenzi says, “I only had one pure environmental law job, but my knowledge was hugely important in my other jobs. The Navy encounters many environmental challenges, including laws addressing discharges from ships, where we can exercise and when, how our operations affect marine life, and more. My ability to understand those laws and explain them to commanders and Navy leaders has been tremendously important.

“I proudly have my GW diploma hanging on the wall,” Ms. DeRenzi says. “It was a great school, with teachers who were professors and practitioners in the environmental law field. My GW education gave me a very good grounding.”

—Kathleen Kocks