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Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of (1918)

Further Readings

Congress passed the first Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act in 1918 (50 App. U.S.C.A. § 501 et seq.). This act was designed to protect the CIVIL RIGHTS and legal interests of individuals in the ARMED SERVICES during WORLD WAR I and ensure that they would not be distracted by legal obligations at home. The act did not prevent persons from suing service members. Rather, it allowed a court to stay civil proceedings against them. The act authorized a court to suspend legal actions against a member of the armed forces during his time of service if the court determined that he was unable to defend himself in court because of active duty.

Congress passed a revised version of the act in 1940. The major difference between it and the original was that the 1940 act authorized courts to postpone proceedings against service members beyond the time of active duty and until they were capable of protecting their interests. The 1940 act had three objectives concerning service members: to suspend civil judicial actions until they could appear in court, to provide them peace of mind during their fighting in WORLD WAR II, and to give them time to return home after service to protect their endangered interests. Congress has amended the act several times since 1940, usually to keep courts from interpreting the act too narrowly against service members. In addition, Congress has expanded coverage of the act to include all members of the armed forces including reservists. In 2002 Congress brought members of the NATIONAL GUARD under the provisions of the law when "under a call to active service authorized by the President or the Secretary of Defense for a period of more than 30 consecutive days … for purposes of responding to a national emergency declared by the President and supported by Federal funds."

The act provides service members with three types of relief from judicial proceedings. They may request a stay of proceedings, a reopening of a default judgment, or a stay of execution against a judgment. To obtain any relief, a court first must find that the service members' ability to defend their cases was affected by their service.

Service members may postpone proceedings during service or within 60 days after service. Service members or acquaintances of service members may apply for a stay of proceedings with the court, or the court may decide on its own to issue a stay. If a stay is issued, the case remains postponed until the court determines that the service member's ability to defend against the suit is no longer affected by his or her military service.

If service members fail to obtain a stay of the proceedings and the trial court issues a default judgment, service members may reopen the case. To reopen a default judgment, service members must apply with the trial court while still on active duty or within 90 days of discharge. Congress has allowed service members to reopen only those default judgments that were rendered during the service members' terms of service or within 30 days after discharge. Reopening a default judgment gives a service member an opportunity to present his or her defense to the lawsuit.

If a service member is unable to obtain a stay or reopen a default judgment, he or she may stay the execution of the judgment. This does not eliminate the default judgment; rather, it gives the service member time to appeal the judgment and prevents authorities from taking the property of the service member in satisfaction of the judgment during the appeal process.


Military Law; National Guard.

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