top of page

Navigating Military Courts-Martial: Procedures and Distinctions from Civilian Courts

Within the realm of military justice, courts-martial serve as pivotal instruments for maintaining discipline, order, and accountability within the armed forces. Understanding the procedures and disparities between military courts-martial and civilian courts is crucial for service members and civilians alike.

A gavel on the bench in a military court martial

Structure and Composition:

Military courts-martial operate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a comprehensive legal framework governing the conduct of military personnel. These courts are presided over by military judges and often include panels of service members, akin to civilian juries. The composition of the panel varies based on the severity of the charges and the type of court-martial.

Types of Courts-Martial:

There are three primary types of courts-martial: summary, special, and general. Summary courts-martial handle minor offenses and involve a single officer as both judge and jury. Special courts-martial adjudicate moderate-level offenses and feature a panel of at least four members. General courts-martial, the most serious, handle felony-level offenses and involve a panel of at least eight members.


While courts-martial share some similarities with civilian courts, such as presenting evidence, examining witnesses, and rendering verdicts, there are notable procedural differences. Military courts-martial adhere to rules and procedures outlined in the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), which governs everything from trial conduct to sentencing guidelines.

Rights of the Accused:

Service members accused of crimes during courts-martial are afforded certain rights, including the right to counsel, the right to remain silent, and the right to confront witnesses. However, these rights may differ in scope or application compared to those in civilian courts.

Sentencing and Appeals:

Upon conviction in a military court-martial, sentencing is determined by the panel or judge, taking into account factors such as the severity of the offense and the accused's service record. Appeals in military justice proceed through a hierarchical system, with reviews conducted by appellate courts specific to each branch of the armed forces. The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces serves as the military’s highest court, and its decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Key Distinctions from Civilian Courts:

One significant difference between military and civilian courts is the command influence inherent in military justice. Commanding officers often play a role in initiating charges and selecting members for the court panel, raising unique challenges regarding impartiality and independence.

Military courts-martial represent a distinct facet of military justice, governed by specialized rules and procedures tailored to the unique, stated needs and exigencies of the armed forces. I often challenge many of these assertions of “military necessity.” Understanding these procedures and disparities is essential for service members, legal professionals, and civilians seeking insight into the military justice system.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page