Levels of Courts-Martial

Overview of the different levels of courts-martial

Congress established three levels of courts-martial

General, Special, and Summary. The levels of court differ according to the jurisdictional limitations on punishment they can impose. Punishments can include confinement, punitive discharge, forfeitures, reduction (enlisted only), hard labor without confinement (enlisted only), reprimand, a fine, and death for certain offenses. The characteristics of each type of court-martial are set out below:

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Summary Courts-Martial (Arts. 20 and 24)

This, the lowest level of court-martial, is accorded less procedural protection. Military judges do not preside over these proceedings, there is no right to defense counsel, and the “court” is composed of one officer, usually a non-lawyer. However, a finding of guilty at a SCM is not recognized as a federal conviction. The maximum punishment allowed is 1 month confinement, hard labor without confinement for 45 days, restriction for 2 months, or forfeiture of 2/3 pay (a Soldier above the rank of SPC may not be confined or given hard labor without confinement, or reduced except to the next pay grade). See RCM 1301 et seq. and DA Pam 27-7 for procedures.

Special Courts-Martial (Arts. 19 and 23)

Similar to a civilian “misdemeanor” court, the maximum punishment that can be adjudged at a SPCM is a bad conduct discharge, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade (E-1), confinement for one year, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for one year. A quorum consists of three members.

General Courts-Martial (Arts. 18 and 22).

Reserved for the more serious offenses, a GCM may adjudge the maximum punishment allowed for a particular offense (e.g., death for murder). In a trial with panel members, at least five members must sit to constitute a quorum.

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Hierarchy of authority

Overview of the hierarchy of authority:

The hierarchy of judicial authority is as follows:
Constitution, statute (including UCMJ), executive orders (including RCMs), cases, regulations, and DA Pams. See United States v. Lopez, 35 M.J. 35 (C.M.A. 1992).

Organization of the MCM

Overview of the organization of the mcm:

  1. Part I, Preamble.
  2. Part II, Rules for Court-Martial (RCMs).
  3. Part III, Military Rules of Evidence (MREs).
  4. Part IV, UCMJ’s punitive articles (substantive criminal law).
  5. Part V, Procedures for nonjudicial punishment.
  6. Appendices: Constitution (Appendix 1); full text of UCMJ as passed by Congress
    (Appendix 2); and additional forms, analyses, directives, executive orders etc

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The military justice process

Overview of the military justice process:

Congress enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to provide a coherent, fair system of criminal justice within the military. The President was granted significant authority to craft rules of procedure for this system. Those rules are entitled Rules for Courts-Martial (RCM). The UCMJ and the RCMs are grouped together in the Manual for Courts-Martial, the most recent edition published in 2008

Transitory nature of courts-martial

A court-martial exists temporarily, hears only a limited number of cases, and then is permanently adjourned. The court is called into life, or “convened,” by an officer who has been given such power by Congress, usually by virtue of position (e.g., a commander of an Army division is, under Article 22, UCMJ, authorized to 21-1 convene a general court-martial). These commanders are “convening authorities” and they breathe life into these impermanent courts with a “convening order.” A court may be convened for a certain period of time, or only to hear a specific case (this is often the practice in commands where only a small number of cases are tried, where there is no necessity for standing panels).

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