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Courts-martial under the UCMJ: parameters and process

We took an introductory look at the Uniform Code of Military Justice in our August 26 blog post, noting the congressional enactment of this singular legal system in 1950. The UCMJ applies to all active duty servicemembers.

As we remarked in that post, the seeds of the UCMJ were historically planted long ago, with the U.S. Congress being empowered in the nation’s Constitution “to make Rules for … the land and naval Forces.”

The above-cited post referenced the court-martial system established under the UCMJ, which we elaborate on today. The information that follows comes courtesy of a prominent encyclopedia of American law.

An initial point to note is that courts-martial proceedings can be of three types, as follows:

  • General court-martial, employed for the most serious offenses
  • Special court-martial, used for intermediate-level offenses
  • Summary court-martial, applicable to offenses deemed comparatively minor

Given that the potential consequences of a general court-martial conviction can be of the utmost seriousness (including a death sentence), that form/level of proceeding has the most comprehensive protections for an accused party. A number of imposed sentences qualify for automatic review by a so-called Court of Criminal Appeals. Additionally, that tribunal’s judgment is also subject to review by a higher-level civilian court -- the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces -- in some instances. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court might also weigh in on an appellate case.

Courts-martial proceedings apply to a wide universe of common law crimes (for example, murder, sexual assault and theft) and military-specific offenses (e.g., AWOL, failure to obey).

Importantly, the UCMJ provides an accused servicemember with the right to secure independent legal counsel.

A proven civilian attorney with a specialized background in military law can full promote the rights of any servicemember facing court-martial charges.

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