The Basics of a Military Courts-Martial

Over the last year or so, many news reports have come out concerning various courts-martial proceedings that are, or will be, taking place. The Bowe Bergdahl case is just one example. With this in mind, here is a brief look at the different types of military courts-martial and how they are used.

Under the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), there are 3 kinds of military courts-martial. They are: summary, special, and general. The way each is composed, and the punishments each can impose, is different. However, the Military Rules of Evidence will apply to each type of courts-martial. Also, in each type, the accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Summary Court-Martial:

A summary court-martial is used only to try enlisted personnel who have been charged with non-capital crimes. It consists of one commissioned officer and punishment depends on the grade of the person who is accused.

For enlisted personnel with rank above the fourth pay grade, the summary court-martial is allowed to impose any punishment that is not forbidden by the law. It may not impose death sentences, dishonorable or bad conduct discharges; may not require confinement for more than 1 month, or hard labor without confinement for more than 45 days. Restrictions to specified limits are allowed for up to 2 months. It cannot require a forfeiture of more than two-thirds of one month’s pay.

For those below the fourth pay grade, it can also impose confinement for not more than one month and it is allowed to reduce the accused to the lowest pay grade: E-1.

In summary courts-martial, the accused has the right to refuse a trial by summary courts-martial; the accused does have the right to call witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, produce evidence that may clear him or her, and has the right to testify on his or her own behalf or remain silent. Except in the Air Force, there is no requirement to provide the accused with a defense lawyer (although a lawyer is usually allowed). The important word here is “requirement.”

Court MartialThe Special Court-Martial:

The special court-martial must be composed of not less than three members as well as a military judge; if the accused requests it, he or she may be tried by the military judge alone.

This court often tries misdemeanor crimes and it is allowed to try all ranks of personnel, including officers. It may impose any punishment that is authorized under R.C.M.1003, with the exceptions of death, dishonorable discharge, dismissal, confinement lasting more than 1 year, hard labor without confinement lasting more than 3 months, forfeiture of pay that exceeds two-thirds pay per month, or any forfeiture of pay for more than 12 months.

The General Court-Martial:

The general court-martial will consist of at least five members as well as a military judge. Again, the accused may be tried by military judge alone if he or she requests it. This is considered the “felony” court and it is allowed to try any person, regardless of rank, who is subject to the UCMJ. This court may impose any punishment, including death if specifically authorized, that is not prohibited under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Robert Partain

Robert Partain has been a professional writer for over 25 years. He spent ten years on active duty in the Army working as a medic and training NCO. While he covers any topic associated with military life, he specializes in writing about legislation that can affect active duty service members and veterans. Robert currently lives in the small town of Arab, Alabama.
Robert Partain
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