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What is a court-martial?

There are different types of court-martial. They aren’t classified as felony and misdemeanor courts, but I found it helpful to provide that analogy to clients when explaining what they were looking at, with general courts-martial roughly analogous to a felony court, and special courts-martial akin to a  misdemeanor court. Essentially, there are different levels of court-martial that can be understood based on what the upper limits for punishment are. And sometimes certain offenses must be sent to a particular court-martial.

General Court-Martial

The most serious offenses are generally taken to a general court-martial. Officers must be tried by a general court-martial.

A general court-martial may try any person subject to the UCMJ for any offense made punishable under the UCMJ. Recent amendments also mandate that certain offenses are tried only at general court-martial, such as rape, rape of a child, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, as well as attempts thereof under Article 80.

A general court-martial may adjudge any punishment authorized under Rule for Court-Martial 1003, to include, in certain circumstances, death.

Special Court-Martial

A special court-martial is more limited in the types of punishments available. A special court-martial may not adjudge any sentence that includes the death penalty, dishonorable discharge, dismissal, confinement for more than 1 year, hard labor without confinement for more than 3 months, forfeiture of pay exceeding two-thirds pay per month, or any forfeiture of pay for more than 1 year.

Special Court-Martial Judge Alone

One of the recent amendments to the UCMJ provided for this new type of court-martial. Punishments are even more limited in these courts-martial, where a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for more than six months, or forfeiture of pay for more than six months, may not be adjudged. So this means you cannot be discharged from this court-martial, although you may be subject to an administrative separation for your convictions in a separate proceeding. If, before arraignment, the accused objects, he can reject the forum offered here by the convening authority’s referral, if a specification is not a drug offense and has a maximum authorized period of confinement greater than two years, or if a conviction would result in sex offender registration.

Summary Court-Martial

A summary court-martial is composed of one commissioned officer on active duty. In my experience, the officer was normally an 0-3, because that is the lowest permissible rank that will serve as the hearing officer.

The purpose of a summary court-martial is to promptly adjudicate minor offenses under a simple disciplinary proceeding. A finding of guilt does not constitute a criminal conviction, although jeopardy attaches to any charge tried therein. The maximum penalty that can be adjudged in a summary court-martial is confinement for 30 days, forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for one month, and reduction to the lowest pay grade. For any enlisted member at E-5 or above, a summary court-martial may not adjudge confinement, hard labor without confinement, or reduction except to the next pay grade.

Accused do not have a right to counsel at a summary court-martial. However, pursuant to Rule for Court-Martial 1301(e), an accused may have a defense counsel represent them at a summary court-martial provided the appearance of counsel does not unreasonably delay the proceedings. And an accused has the right to object to this forum, and demand a trial by another court-martial.

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