Vice Admiral James Crawford III: Mastering the Law of the Sea


Vice Admiral James W. Crawford III, LL.M. ’92, understands the importance of the law of the sea. “Many nations desire to extend their sovereignty over offshore waters,” said Crawford. “There are issues over fishing rights, oil and gas drilling and other matters. More than 90 percent of the world’s commerce moves by sea, including tankers carrying fossil fuels, and any obstruction could have a tremendous impact on the global economy.”

Two decades before he became the 43rd Judge Advocate General of the Navy, Crawford spent one year at the University of Miami School of Law earning a Master of Laws degree in Ocean and Coastal Law, newly rechristened as the LL.M. in Maritime Law. “I wanted to learn from the best and was fortunate to be accepted to the Miami Law program,” he said.

Crawford’s interest in the field grew after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea concluded in December 1982. The convention defined the rights and responsibilities of nations using the world’s oceans, established business and environmental guidelines, and included a commitment to management of marine natural resources.

“The law of the sea was at the forefront of international legal thinking in the mid-1980s,” Crawford said. “This was a successful effort to determine how the nations of the world would treat the seas, which are primarily used for peaceful purposes, and address critical issues, such as freedom of navigation.”

The U.S. delegation to the convention included two Miami Law professors, the late Thomas A. Clingan and Bernard H. Oxman, a leading expert on the law of the sea, and now the Richard A. Hausler Professor of Law.

“I have the deepest respect for my professors and fellow students at the School of Law,” said Crawford, who is one of a handful of Navy JAGs to complete the UM program. “I enjoyed being a ’Cane and appreciated the school’s commitment to excellence.”


Crawford’s journey to the law started at an early age. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he told his family that he wanted to be a lawyer when he was still in elementary school. “I was a child of the 1960s who saw how the law was wielded by individuals of character like Justice Thurgood Marshall. I was not driven by personal satisfaction, but by seeing how the law can be a great equalizer when correctly used.”

A lifelong Catholic, Crawford’s other role models included Sir Thomas More, the independent thinker who challenged England’s King Henry VIII, and Massachusetts attorney John Rock, who in 1865 became the first black lawyer to be admitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. “These were brave men of faith who believed in doing what was right,” Crawford said. “I believe that being a great lawyer is not just a matter of intellect, but character and faith.”

Crawford is also an advocate of the importance of teamwork in sports, business, and the military. He played basketball from age three through college and continues to enjoy staying fit.

In 1979, Crawford graduated from Belmont Abbey College with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He was commissioned through the JAG Corps Student Program, and in 1983 graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill. “I wanted to use the law in a way that would have a broad impact,” he said. “I saw the Navy as that opportunity. It is a tremendous place to grow leaders. We have an enduring sense of teamwork, with a great history of officers and practitioners.”

Crawford began his legal career as a defense counsel at the Naval Legal Service Trial Defense Activity, Naval Air Station Jacksonville. He later served with the Navy Personnel Command; the Naval War College; the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe; the Naval Justice School, and Cruiser Destroyer Group 8.

Before his appointment to flag rank, he served as special counsel to the Chief of Naval Operations, the senior staff judge advocate for the Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, and as the fleet judge advocate for the Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet. He also earned a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

“During my time in the Navy I have been exposed to important men and women of character who modeled great examples for me,” he said. “They also gave me an opportunity to participate in momentous events for our country.”

Crawford was serving in the Pentagon as deputy legal counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11 when Al-Qaeda terrorists seized a passenger jet and crashed it into the headquarters of the Department of Defense. “I was an action officer when the event happened,” he said. “I worked on our watch team to understand the situation and determine what steps to take. It was an opportunity for me to make a contribution to our country at a time when it was needed. People often focus on being the best. But I appreciate UCLA coach John Wooden’s approach: “Don’t worry about being better than someone else. Instead, be at your best when your best is needed.”


From 2007-2011 Crawford served as the legal counsel to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then spent one year as Commander, NATO Rule of Law Field Support Mission/Rule of Law Field Force-Afghanistan.

“My wife Elizabeth and I have twin 9-year-old boys, Nicholas and Alexander,” Crawford said. “They were only three when I was deployed to Afghanistan, and I know personally what a hardship it is for military families when a parent is serving abroad. My wife is a strong woman and a great mother, who helps keep me grounded.”

Crawford’s personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal (three awards), the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (three awards), and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

From 2012 to 2015, Crawford was the deputy JAG of the Navy and Commander, Naval Legal Service Command, before assuming his current role. He is now the principal military legal counsel to the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations and serves as the Department of Defense Representative for Ocean Policy Affairs.

Today, Crawford leads the 2,300 attorneys, enlisted and civilian employees of the worldwide Navy JAG Corps community. “We are always seeking young lawyers with an interest in public sector law,” he said. “We have an outstanding organization that is dedicated to service and committed to excellence.”

Crawford plans to complete his tour of duty with the Navy in the Summer of 2018. “At this point, I haven’t thought about my future beyond that,” he said. “One of the options might be going back to a college or university in administration.”

Reflecting on his Naval career, Crawford said, “I have always tried to make contributions to others. For me, life is about my faith, my family, my friends and myself. The deepest rewards in life come from putting others first.”