What is a court-martial?
A court-martial is a military criminal trial. The military has jurisdiction to prosecute servicemembers for any violation of the punitive articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Generally speaking, the military has jurisdiction over its members everywhere in the world. That means servicemembers can be prosecuted for violations that occur on or off a military installation.
Crimes committed under the UCMJ are considered federal crimes. Some of the punitive articles are the same or very similar to civilian offenses, such as assault, larceny, and homicide. Many are military-specific offenses, such as absent without leave (Article 86) or disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer (Article 89).
Types of court-martial
There are three types of court-martial.
General Court-Martial (GCM)
A general court-martial is the highest level of court-martial involving the most serious offenses. Before a general court-martial can be convened, there must be a preliminary hearing pursuant to Article 32, UCMJ. The Preliminary Hearing Officer (PHO) makes a recommendation to the General Court-Martial Convening Authority, who may then choose to convene a court-martial. A general court-martial can adjudge any sentence up to the maximum sentence for each offense prescribed by the UCMJ. The trial consists of a military judge, trial counsel, defense counsel, and a panel of members. A conviction at a general court-martial is a federal conviction.
Special Court-Martial (SPCM)
A special court-martial is used to try what would generally be considered misdemeanor offenses. A special court-martial has limits on what maximum punishment can be imposed, regardless of the maximum punishment for an offense listed in any specific punitive article. For example, a single use of marijuana carries a maximum punishment of a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 2 years. In a special court-martial, the maximum sentence would be a bad conduct discharge, forfeiture of 2/3 pay per month for 12 months, and confinement for one year. The trial consists of a military judge, trial counsel, defense counsel, and a panel of members. A conviction at a special court-martial is a federal conviction.
Summary Court-Martial (SCM)
A summary court-martial is reserved for minor offenses committed by enlisted servicemembers. The enlisted member must agree to be tried at the summary court-martial, though if the member disagrees, a general or special court-martial may be preferred against them. An officer may not be tried at a summary court-martial. The punishments are limited, and a conviction at a summary court-martial is not a conviction for civilian purposes.
The maximum punishment that can be imposed at a court-martial varies by the type of court-martial and the particular offenses that have been charged. A punitive discharge at a court-martial are a bad conduct discharge, dishonorable discharge, or dismissal. Confinement can be adjudged, though a sentence to confinement of more than 10 years requires concurrence of three-fourths of the members. Other punishments include reduction to the lowest enlisted pay grade, restriction, a reprimand, and forfeitures of all pay and allowances. Some offenses allow for a sentence to death with the concurrence of all the members.
Other consequences of a court-martial involved registration as a sex offender or loss of the ability to own a firearm.
A Different Type of Justice System
The military justice system is unique and complex. Servicemembers facing court-martial charges have the right to be represented by a civilian attorney at no expense to the government. The choice of a civilian attorney is very important. It is essential that a servicemember retain an attorney who has the experience, dedication, and passion to defend them against charges brought by the military.