Mennonite Minister Finds Calling in Defending Military Dissenters
Posted Sep 7, 2010 7:59 AM CST
By Stephanie Francis Ward
Corrected: When James Branum defends soldiers facing court-martial, he stands out with his tousled hair and suits that may not fit perfectly. Jesus, he says, led him to the work, and that also makes him different from many of his colleagues in the left-leaning National Lawyers Guild, whose Military Law Task Force he co-chairs.But Branum, an Oklahoma native who came back home after a stint in Austin, Texas—largely because he thought members of the peace community there took themselves a little too seriously—comes across as a man who’s probably never fit in completely. That seems to help him relate to clients, many of them young people having serious problems with the U.S. military.
“I love helping empower them to find their own path,” says Branum, a 34-year-old sole practitioner in Oklahoma City. “I have clients now who are in college. It feels a little bit like having a whole bunch of kids.”
Over the past year he’s filed seven clemency petitions for soldiers, four of whom had been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Two of his petitions were successful.
“I’ve had clients confess to me things that would be war crimes, like having to kill children who came too close to their vehicle when they were in combat,” Branum says. “On the other hand, I hear about soldiers who take tremendous risks to do the right things.”
Clients, many of whom find Branum on the Internet through Google ads or the blog on his website GIRightsLawyer.com, pay a sliding fee, usually between $60 and $150 an hour. Donors, who also often find out about Branum’s work online, help with expenses. (He also has videos on YouTube and runs JMBzine, where he blogs about things outside of his practice.)
“The people who are conscientious objectors, who are willing to be political, I can raise money for them,” Branum says. “The mental health cases … a lot of people don’t have as much sympathy.”
Branum estimates that last year he earned about $20,000, and he is hoping to earn $25,000 this year. An active member of the Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City, he lives in an apartment owned by the congregation and serves as their minister of peace and justice.
“I like [the apartment] because it has a backyard for my dog to stay in while I’m at work,” he says, “and for me to have a little garden.”
Branum also has law school loans, which are deferred. “My attitude is that until the war situation changes, I’ll keep treading water on these loans,” Branum says in his Oklahoma drawl.
The son of a small-town lawyer, he grew up in the Churches of Christ. “They make the Baptists seems liberal,” Branum says. “Sweet people, but very rigid in their views.”
He moved to Austin to attend the Institute for Christian Studies, thinking he’d be a minister. But while there Branum started questioning Churches of Christ beliefs and was influenced by someone he met in the Catholic Worker Movement, which focuses on nonviolence and helping the poor.
“I had a hard time reconciling Jesus’ teachings with the idea of Americanism—that our nation is somehow superior to other countries,” says Branum, who eventually found his way to the Mennonite faith. The denomination has a historical commitment to nonviolence.
He also decided a law degree would serve his faith more than protesting and agitating, although he still does that too, often just outside army bases where his clients are detained. “I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do to make the world a more peaceful place was to help one soldier at a time get out,” he says.
On many days Branum can be found in his 2006 Nissan Sentra driving to various army bases to see clients or attend courts-martial. His dog, Sandy, a 3-year-old Labrador mix, often rides shotgun. Branum posts Facebook updates, including pictures of him and his dog, from the road.
“He’s an incredible computer geek,” says Daniel M. Mayfield, a partner with Carpenter and Mayfield in San Jose, Calif. Like Branum, Mayfield is a National Lawyers Guild member who represents military personnel.
“The primary thing that I’m sure shocks his military law opponents is his Christian background,” Mayfield says about Branum, who sports a longish goatee on his boyish face and often wears bolo ties coupled with large pieces of Native American jewelry.
“I’m sure they take one look at him and decide he’s a fire-breathing atheist wacko commie. In reality, he comes to socialism from a Christian background and sees that as part of carrying out his faith,” Mayfield says. “I’m a nonbeliever, but boy do I respect him for finding that center and working from it.”
See James Branum talk about how he uses God's law and man's law in his law practice:
Profile last updated on Sept. 8 to correctly note that Branum grew up in the Churches of Christ.