A court-martial is military court. These military courts can determine punishments for members of the
military subject to military law who are found guilty or may dismiss the charges based on the evidence and
the case presented. In addition, courts-martial may be used to try prisoners of war for war crimes. The
Geneva Convention requires that who are on trial for war crimes be subject to the same procedures as would
be the holding’s own Soldiers. Additionally, most navies have a standard court-martial which convenes
whenever a ship is lost; this does not necessarily mean that the captain is suspected of wrongdoing, but
merely that the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ship would be made part of the official record.
Many ship captains will actually insist on a court-martial in such circumstances.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) defines military offenses and trial procedures for
courts-martial. As in all United States criminal courts, courts-martial are adversarial proceedings.
Military lawyers of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) representing the government and appointed
military lawyers representing the accused present and argue relevant facts, legal aspects, and theories
before a military judge. The accused can also hire civilian representation at their own expense
The lawyers must follow military rules of procedure and evidence as allowed by the presiding judge. During
these trial proceedings, the military judge decides questions of law. In non-capital cases, the accused may
request to be tried by the military judge alone or by a jury, however, discretion in granting such request
lies with the military judge. A court-martial jury is called a panel of members. This panel decides
questions of fact as allowed by law, unless the accused chooses to be tried by judge alone, in which case
the judge will resolve questions of law and questions of fact. Both the court-martial members and the
military judge are members of the armed forces. Members of a court-martial are commissioned officers, unless
the accused is a warrant officer or enlisted member and requests that the membership reflect their position
by including warrant or enlisted members. Only a court-martial can determine innocence or guilt.
Make up of a court-martial
A panel of officers sit in judgment at a court-martial, while the accused person is usually represented by an
officer who may be a military lawyer.
Crimes punishable by a court-martial
Courts-martial have the authority to try a wide range of military offences, many of which closely resemble
civilian crimes like fraud, theft or perjury. Others, like cowardice, desertion, and insubordination are
purely military crimes. Punishments for military offences ranged from fines and imprisonment to execution.
Military offences are defined in the Army Act, Royal Air Force Act and Royal Navy Act for members of the
British Military. Regulations for the Canadian Forces are found in the Queen's Regulations and Orders. For
members of the United States they are covered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). These
offences, their corresponding punishments and instructions on how to run a court-martial, are explained in
detail based on each country and/or service.
Levels of courts-martial
Three levels of courts-martial can be convened depending on the severity of the offense(s): Summary (which
can confine junior enlisted to up to 30 days), Special (which, depending on the charges, can confine an
accused up to a year and give a bad-conduct discharge to enlisted) and General (which, depending on the
charges, can sentence an accused to death or life imprisonment, and give a bad-conduct or dishonorable
discharge or a dismissal to officers). Officers are not tried at summary courts-martial and enlisted members
have an absolute right to refuse summary court.
Unlike federal courts established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, a court-martial is established
under Article I and does not exist until its creation is ordered by a commanding officer. Such officers are
called court-martial convening authorities. The legally operative document that a convening authority uses
to create a court-martial is called a court-martial convening order.
General courts-martial require an investigating officer, with at least the rank of captain (naval
lieutenant),or other officer with legal training, to hold a hearing to review government evidence which
outlines the elements of the alleged crime. These investigations are referred to as Article 32 hearings
because they are described in article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). In the Air Force
and Navy the Investigating Officer is usually a JAG officer, in the Army it is usually a non-lawyer. The
accused is present and has an attorney to examine evidence and testimony. The Article 32 hearing is a major
discovery tool for the defense. The investigating officer then sends the report with recommendations to the
convening authority, who may then refer the case for court-martial.
Convening authorities may decide on actions other than court-martial, especially when the government case is
weak. The charges may be dismissed or disposed of at a lower level, and include actions such as
administrative reprimands, summary courts-martial, non-judicial punishment, or administrative separation.
Courts-martial have universal jurisdiction over active duty military personnel, subject to the Uniform Code
of Military Justice. This means that no matter where a service member is in the world, if they are on active
duty, they can be tried by a court-martial. Under new laws to deal with contractors operating abroad with
the armed forces, some civilians are also subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
If a service member is court-martialed and they feel that the result was unjust, then the service member can
submit their case to the convening authority, which is the officer (usually a general) that originally had
the service member court-martialed. This is similar to asking a civilian governor for clemency or a pardon.
After clemency requests the service member may submit their case for review to the Court of Criminal Appeal
for their branch. See Army Court of Criminal Appeals, Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeal, Air Force
Court of Criminal Appeals, Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals.
Cases can be further appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the Supreme
Court of the United States.
As the final last resort, the convicted service member can ask for executive clemency also known as a
'reprieve', or a pardon from the President.