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Navigating the Types of Court Martial

June 2, 2021

If you’re a service member in the US Armed Forces, chances are you’re familiar with the term “court martial.” This is the military’s court of law, which hears cases against service members charged with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The three types of courts martial—summary court martial, special court martial, and general court martial—are based on the perceived severity of the crime and the level of punishment allowed.

Summary Court Martial

A summary court martial is the lowest court in the military law system. It hears cases of service members who have been accused of committing minor offenses. Summary courts martial are not considered criminal trials and do not result in a federal criminal conviction. Still, they are more serious than non-judicial punishments, which provide disciplinary action without the formality of a court martial.

Your Rights Under a Summary Court Martial

A single commissioned officer serves as judge and jury in this lowest-level military court. Also, because summary courts martial have less severe punishments, accused individuals aren’t provided free legal representation. Still, they have the right to hire their own counsel, which is highly recommended.

The accused also has the unique right to refuse trial by summary court martial. The decision on how to proceed rests with the commanding officer. Your case could be sent to a special court martial, referred to non-judicial punishment, or dismissed entirely. Because the default response is to elevate your case to a higher level of court martial, we strongly recommend consulting with a military lawyer before refusing trial by summary court martial.

Some of your other rights include:

  • The right to present evidence and call witnesses to the stand
  • The right to cross-examine witnesses
  • The right to either testify or remain silent

Maximum Punishments Allowed Under a Summary Court Martial

A summary court martial may impose different punishments depending on your rank at the time of your arrest. The types of sentences doled out may include:

  • Hard labor with no confinement for up to 45 days
  • Restriction to specified limits for up to two months
  • Two-thirds reduction in pay for one month
  • Reduction in rank
  • Confinement for up to 30 days

Special Court Martial

A special court martial can be compared to civilian misdemeanor court and is used for trying mid-level, noncapital offenses.

What to Expect from a Special Court Martial

Because special courts martial handle mid-level crimes, the convening authority may be a lower-ranking commander. An informal investigation typically precedes a special court martial, and the proceedings consist of a jury of at least three members and a military judge. However, the accused can request to be tried by a military judge alone. We strongly recommend consulting with a military lawyer before waiving your right to a jury.

Maximum Punishments Allowed Under a Special Court Martial

Consider the types of sentences you can expect from a conviction in a special court martial:

  • Hard labor with no confinement for up to 90 days
  • Two-thirds reduction in pay for one year
  • Bad conduct discharge
  • Confinement for up to one year

Be aware that a relatively new type of special court martial—known as the “six-month special”—limits confinement to six months and cannot include a bad conduct discharge. This court martial addresses misconduct that doesn’t merit punitive discharge but may warrant a longer time in confinement.

General Court Martial

A general court martial is the most serious type of military court. Convictions at this level are almost always considered a felony, and the possible punishments are most severe.

What a General Court Martial Entails

Due to the seriousness of a general court martial, the proceedings can only be summoned by the president, secretary of defense, commanding officer, general, or flag officer. Before the court martial begins, the accused is offered the right to attend an Article 32 hearing. This formal investigation, also called a probable cause proceeding, is where the investigating officer determines if there’s enough evidence to take the case further. The accused may attempt to stop the case from moving forward by cross-examining witnesses and introducing new evidence at this hearing.

If the case proceeds, a Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps member is selected to serve as the military judge. A panel of five or more jury members, who are usually military personnel, is also present. Waiving the right to a jury trial in a general court martial is extremely rare, and we strongly recommend consulting with a military lawyer before doing so.

Maximum Punishments Allowed Under a General Court Martial

A general court martial may deliver any punishments allowed in the UCMJ, including:

  • Fines
  • Forfeiture of all pay, allowances, and benefits
  • Dishonorable discharge or bad conduct discharge
  • Life imprisonment
  • Capital punishment (reserved for the most egregious crimes, including murder, espionage, and aiding the enemy during wartime)

Hire a Court Martial Attorney

No matter what type of court martial you have been summoned to, it’s critical to obtain legal representation as soon as possible. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law is an accomplished, experienced military lawyer specializing in all kinds of UCMJ violations. As a former Army JAG officer, you can trust Mr. Jordan to represent your case professionally and fight for your rights aggressively in court.

For expert representation in your upcoming summary, special, or general court martial, please contact us online or call us toll free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411.

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