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Military Justice Fact Sheets
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Military Status Is the Key. Article 2 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, (Section 802 of Title 10, United States Code), UCMJ, lists twelve categories of individuals that are subject to trial by court-martial. The categories of persons are: military personnel, whether active, reserve, or retired; members of certain quasi-military organizations (e.g., Public Health Service members when serving with the armed forces); military prisoners; prisoners of war; and under very limited circumstances, certain specified categories of civilians. (The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has prohibited the court-martial of any civilians accompanying the armed forces in the field during peacetime. In addition, certain punitive articles of the UCMJ, by their express terms, may only be used to punish members of the armed forces.)

Court-martial jurisdiction is most commonly exercised over active duty personnel. All active duty personnel are subject to the UCMJ and amenable to court-marital jurisdiction throughout their period of active service. Status as an active-duty service member, and hence court-martial jurisdiction over such persons, ordinarily begins with enlistment or commissioning and terminates with the delivery of a valid discharge certificate or separation order.

Members of a reserve component in federal service on active duty, as well as those in federal service on inactive-duty training, are also subject to the UCMJ. A reservist remains subject to court-martial jurisdiction without regard to any change between active and reserve service or any change within different categories of reserve service for offenses committed while on active duty or in an inactive-duty training status. This does not apply, however, to a reserve member whose military status is completely terminated after commission of an offense.

Members of the National Guard or the Air National Guard are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice unless performing Federal service.

Worldwide Jurisdiction. The United States military deploys worldwide, often on short notice, with large numbers of military personnel and unique disciplinary requirements. Since most American criminal laws are not applicable outside of the United States, it is important to have a system of criminal justice that can wherever our troops are deployed. As such, the military services need a flexible, separate, military justice system capable of operating in times of peace or conflict, under the same standards at home or abroad. That system is the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or "the Code." It is a system of criminal justice that is deployable and applies in all places.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is found at Sections 801 through 946 of Title 10, United States Code. Enacted in 1950 as a major revision of then-existing military criminal law, the UCMJ became effective the following year. The UCMJ has been amended on a number of occasions since then, with significant changes occurring in 1968 and 1983. It is promulgated by Congress pursuant to the Constitution and includes the system’s jurisdictional basis, substantive offenses, and the basic procedural structure. In the military justice system, courts-martial have the power to try any offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, except when prohibited from so doing by the Constitution. The rule enunciated by the U. S. Supreme Court in Solorio v. United States, 483 U.S. 43 (1987), is that jurisdiction of courts-marital depends solely on the accused’s military status as a person subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not on a "service-connection" requirement regarding the offense charged. Any violation of the Code is now within the military’s jurisdiction, regardless of whether the offense was committed at home or abroad, on or off the military installation, or while the member was on or off duty.

Offenses. The UCMJ is essentially a complete set of criminal laws. It includes many crimes punished under civilian law (e.g., murder, rape, drug use, larceny, drunk driving, etc.), but it goes beyond that to punish other conduct which affects good order and discipline in the military.

These "unique military offenses" involve conduct that need not be made criminal in civilian life, but must be made offenses in a military justice system because the misconduct goes to the heart of military duties. For example, in civilian life, if people choose to be disrespectful to a civilian supervisor, or if they choose not to go to work or to quit their job for any reason – that decision does not potentially violate any criminal laws and is a matter between them and their supervisor. Military members, however, have tremendous responsibilities and must be counted upon to perform them. These responsibilities require that the military have a disciplinary system that enables commanders to respond to such misconduct - potentially with criminal charges. When a military member doesn’t report for duty, the consequences to the mission and national security can be quite severe. Unique military crimes include, for example, such offenses as desertion, absence without leave, disrespect towards superiors, failure to obey orders, dereliction of duty, wrongful disposition of military property, drunk on duty, malingering, and conduct unbecoming an officer. The UCMJ also includes provisions punishing misbehavior before the enemy, improper use of countersign, misbehavior of a sentinel, misconduct as a prisoner, aiding the enemy, spying, and espionage. Some of those offenses are capital offenses, meaning the maximum punishment is death. The UCMJ reflects the seriousness and importance of the military’s mission and recognizes that ultimately the safety of our forces and the security of our nation are being protected.

Officers’ Special Responsibilities. Traditionally, all military systems place additional and special responsibilities upon officers. Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (10 USC § 933) establishes the offense of "conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman (or gentlewoman)." This article may be violated by any action or behavior in an official capacity that, in dishonoring or disgracing the person as an officer, seriously compromises that person’s character or standing as an officer.

In addition to the enumerated punitive articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 134, (10 USC § 934), makes punishable acts in three categories of offenses not specifically covered in any other article of the code. These are referred to as "Clauses 1, 2, and 3" of Article 134. Clause 1 offenses involve disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces. Clause 2 offenses involve conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces. An act in violation of a local civil law or of a foreign law may be punished if it constitutes a disorder or neglect to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or it is of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.

Clause 3 offenses involve noncapital crimes or offenses that violate Federal law. Certain noncapital crimes and offenses prohibited by the United States Code are made applicable under clause 3 of Article 134 to all persons subject to the code, wherever the wrongful act or omission occurred. These are referred to as crimes and offenses of unlimited application.

Clause 3 offenses also involve offenses made applicable to the military through the Federal Assimilative Crimes Act. These are referred to as crimes and offenses of local application. The Federal Assimilative Crimes Act is Congress’ adoption of state criminal laws for areas of "exclusive or concurrent" federal jurisdiction, in so far as the federal criminal law (including the UCMJ) has not already prescribed an applicable offense for the misconduct committed. For example, if a person committed an act on an exclusive jurisdiction area of a military installation in the United States, and it was not an offense specifically defined by federal law (including the UCMJ), the military person committing the act could be punished by a court-marital. The additional requirements would be that the misconduct was not specified as an existing UCMJ offense and that the offense was not a capital offense under the law of the State where the military installation was located.

The UCMJ does not classify offenses as petty offenses, misdemeanors, or felonies. Whether an offense is considered within any of these classifications is a matter of other federal or state law definitions..

Types of Courts-Martial. There are three types of courts-martial - summary, special and general.

Summary Court-Martial. Trial by summary court-martial provides a simplified procedure for the resolution of charges involving minor incidents of misconduct. The summary court-martial consists of one officer who, depending upon Service policies and practice, is a judge advocate (a military attorney). The maximum punishment a summary court-martial may impose is considerably less than a special or general court-martial. The accused must consent to be tried by a summary court-martial.

Special Court-Martial. A special court-martial is the intermediate court level. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel (prosecutor), defense counsel, and a minimum of three officers sitting as a panel of court members or jury. An enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. An accused, officer or enlisted, may also request trial by judge alone. Regardless of the offenses involved, a special court-martial sentence is limited to no more than twelve months confinement (or a lesser amount if the offenses have a lower maximum), forfeiture of two-third’s basic pay per month for twelve months, a bad-conduct discharge (for enlisted personnel), and certain lesser punishments. An officer accused in a special court-martial cannot be dismissed from the service or confined.

General Court-Martial. A general court-martial is the most serious level of military courts. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel, defense counsel, and at least five court members. Again, an enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. Unless the case is one in which the death sentence could be adjudged, an officer or enlisted accused may also request trial by judge alone. In a general court-martial, the maximum punishment is that established for each offense under the Manual for Courts-Martial, and may include death (for certain offenses), confinement, a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge for enlisted personnel, a dismissal for officers, or a number of other lesser forms of punishment. A pretrial investigation under Article 32, UCMJ, must be conducted before a case may be referred to a general court-martial, unless waived by the accused.

Joint Jurisdiction. Courts-martial have exclusive jurisdiction over purely military offenses. In the case of an offense that violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the criminal law of a State, other Federal law, or all three, it must be determined which jurisdiction will prosecute. This decision is normally made through coordination between appropriate military authorities (ordinarily the chief military lawyer at an installation (Staff Judge Advocate)) and appropriate civilian authorities (United States Attorney or District Attorney’s Office).

The fact that an accused is subject to trial by court-martial does not eliminate the possibility of trial by another jurisdiction, either in addition to or in lieu of court-martial. Under the United States Constitution, a person may not be tried for the same misconduct by both a court-martial and another federal court. Such an act would violate the Constitution’s double jeopardy clause.

Criminal prosecution in both federal and state courts is also a constitutional possibility. The Constitution’s double jeopardy clause is not applicable because two different sovereigns are involved, i.e. the federal government and state government. As a matter of policy, however, a person who is pending trial or has been tried by a State court is ordinarily not tried by court-martial for the same act.

Commission of an offense overseas may result in trial by the host nation. Under international law, a foreign nation has jurisdiction to punish offenses committed within its borders by members of a visiting force, unless it expressly or impliedly consents to relinquish its jurisdiction to the visiting sovereign. Generally, the United States has concluded Status of Forces agreements with host nations that indicate which sovereign will have primary jurisdiction over particular offenses. To the extent possible, efforts are made under such agreements to maximize the exercise of court-martial jurisdiction over military members or other persons subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Self-Incrimination Protections. The military justice system provides an accused rights and due process that in many ways are superior to those provided a defendant in civilian criminal courts. Pursuant to Article 31, Uniform Code of Military Justice (Section 831 of Title 10, United States Code), servicemembers have a right against self-incrimination and an entitlement to be informed of the suspected offense(s) before questioning begins. In addition to protections against self-incrimination, servicemembers have a right to free military counsel when questioned as a suspect of committing an offense, upon preferral of court-martial charges, or initiation of arrest or apprehension.

In the military justice system, these rights are afforded much earlier in the criminal justice system than in civilian practice. These rights and protections apply whenever the servicemember is questioned as a suspect of an offense. In civilian practice, Miranda rights or warnings are not required unless there is custodial interrogation by law enforcement personnel. In fact, the U. S. Supreme Court referenced the military’s "warning rights" practice under Article 31, UCMJ, when deciding to establish the "Miranda Warning" requirement. A showing of indigence is required before a defendant is provided counsel without cost in the civilian system.

Article 31, UCMJ Rights. Article 31 has two important parts:

  1. No one subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice may compel any person to incriminate himself or to answer any question the answer that may tend to incriminate him.

  2. No person subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice may interrogate, or request any statement from a person suspected of an offense without first informing him of the nature of the accusation, that he does not have to made a statement regarding the offense, and that any statement may be used against him as evidence in a trial by court-martial.

Right To Counsel. An independent military defense counsel is provided free of charge regardless of the accused's ability to pay. The accused may also employ civilian counsel at his or her own expense, or request a particular military counsel, who will assist the accused if reasonably available. The accused has the right to be represented by counsel at the magistrate hearing when a determination is made regarding continued pretrial confinement, at the Article 32 investigation, and during all court-martial sessions. After trial, the accused has a right to free military counsel to assist with his appeal through the military appellate courts, and potentially to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pretrial confinement in the military is similar to the civilian system in some respects and different in others. In the civilian community, police arrest serious offenders and take them to jail. In military cases, servicemembers who are "apprehended" ("arrest" has a different technical meaning in the military) are typically turned over to a member of command authority. The command then decides whether to confine the member in a military jail (called "brig" or "stockade" or "confinement"). The command may also impose pretrial "restrictions" instead of confinement. For instance, the servicemember may be restricted to his post or base, pending trial. Before any servicemember is confined or restrained, there must be "probable cause" (a reasonable belief) that the servicemember committed an offense triable by courts-martial and that confinement or restriction is necessary under the circumstances.

In addition, like a civilian policeman, any military officer can order an enlisted servicemember to be confined. The decision to confine a military member is the subject of several reviews. The military justice system follows the civilian requirement that a review of the decision to confine the person be conducted within 48 hours. Within 72 hours, the military member is entitled to have his commanding officer review whether his continued confinement is appropriate. (However, if someone other than the commanding officer confined the member and the commanding officer review was actually conducted within 48 hours, then this commanding officer review can serve to satisfy both review requirements.) Thereafter, a military magistrate who is independent of the command must conduct another review within 7 days. Finally, a military member may request the military judge assigned to the case review the appropriateness of the pretrial confinement.

Throughout the confinement review process, a servicemember is provided a military lawyer, at no expense, to assist him or her. These reviews must confirm, in writing, that there is probable cause to believe that the servicemember committed an offense triable by courts-martial; that confinement is necessary to prevent the servicemember from fleeing or engaging in serious criminal misconduct; and that lesser forms of restraint would be inadequate. These review requirements may be suspended by the Secretary of Defense when operational necessities make them impractical. For the same reason, these requirements are not applicable to ships at sea.

When his charges are "referred" or presented to a court-martial, the confined servicemember may ask the military judge presiding over the court to review his pretrial confinement again. If rules were violated, the military judge can release the servicemember, and he can reduce any subsequent sentence, giving additional credit for inappropriate confinement.

In the civilian community, persons accused of crimes who might flee or commit other crimes may also be confined prior to their trial. A civilian magistrate must review this confinement within 48 hours. In many cases, the magistrate will require confinees to post bail to ensure their return for trial. While awaiting trial, a civilian confinee usually does not receive pay and may actually lose his or her job. Servicemembers do not have to post bail, receive their regular military pay, and do not lose their jobs while awaiting trial.
Right To Counsel for Nonjudicial Punishment (NJP). The statute governing NJP (Section 815 of Title 10, United States Code) does not create a right for servicemembers to consult with counsel after being notified of the commander's intent to dispose of an allegation by NJP. The services have different regulatory policies regarding whether servicemembers have the absolute right to consult with counsel. These regulations differ based on the unique concerns of each of the services in balancing the need to maintain discipline and protections for servicemembers. Air Force personnel have an absolute right to consult with a defense counsel prior to determining whether to accept NJP proceedings or demand trial by court-martial for all NJP. Army personnel have the right to consult with a defense counsel, except when the commander is utilizing Summarized NJP Proceedings. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel do not have a right to consult with counsel prior to NJP, however, commanders from those services strongly encourage consultation with counsel, subject to the availability of counsel, the delay involved, or operational commitments or military exigencies.

When military defense counsel services are provided, it is at no charge to the servicemember. Consultation with an attorney may be by telephone. Service personnel may also consult with civilian counsel at no expense to the government.

Right To Counsel for Courts-Martial. The statute governing right to counsel (Section 838(b) of Title 10, United States Code) defines the accused’s right to various counsel. The accused has the right to be represented at court-martial by a detailed military defense counsel, who is provided at no expense to the accused.

The accused also has the right to request, by name, a different military lawyer. If that attorney is reasonably available, he or she is appointed to represent the accused free of charge. If the request for the other military attorney is granted, the accused does not have the right to keep the services of the detailed defense counsel because the accused is only entitled to one military lawyer. However, the accused may also request to keep his or her detailed counsel, but the attorney's superiors do not have to grant such a request.

In addition, the accused has the right to be represented by a civilian lawyer at no expense to the government. If a civilian lawyer represents the accused, the accused can also keep his or her military attorney on the case to assist the civilian lawyer. Alternatively the accused could excuse his military lawyer and be represented only by the civilian lawyer.

Although rarely exercised, the accused also has the right to represent himself.
Command Leadership Tool. Non-judicial punishment (NJP) is a leadership tool providing military commanders a prompt and essential means of maintaining good order and discipline. NJP proceedings may be known by different terms among the Services, such as "Article 15", "Office Hours" or "Captain’s Mast", but the purpose of NJP, and for the most part its procedures, are common among the Services.

For Minor Offenses. NJP is used to discipline members for minor violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and serves to correct misconduct without attaching the stigma of a court-martial conviction to the member. The Manual for Courts-Martial defines a minor offense for NJP purposes as "ordinarily an offense which the maximum sentence imposable would not include a dishonorable discharge or confinement for longer than one year if tried by a general court-martial." NJP is a disciplinary measure more serious than administrative action (e.g. a letter of reprimand), but less serious than trial by court-martial.

Article 15, UCMJ, And Regulations. NJP is permitted by Article 15, UCMJ (Section 815 of Title 10, United States Code) and is governed by Part V of the Manual for Courts-Martial and by service regulations. Prior to imposition of NJP, a servicemember must first be notified by the commander of the nature of the misconduct of which he or she is accused, of the evidence supporting the accusation, and of the commander’s intent to impose NJP. The member may then be allowed to consult with a defense counsel to determine whether to consent to a NJP proceeding, or to refuse NJP and demand instead a trial by court-martial. The major difference among the services with regard to NJP is that servicemembers attached to or embarked in a vessel may not refuse imposition of NJP.

Accused Ultimately Chooses the Forum. Consenting to participation in a nonjudicial punishment proceeding is not an admission of guilt. By accepting, the accused declines to exercise the right to demand trial by court-martial regarding the offenses alleged. If an accused demands trial when presented with a proposed NJP action, the commander is thereafter prohibited from going forward with nonjudicial punishment. Prior to imposing NJP, the commander will hold a hearing at which the member may be present. The member may also have a spokesperson attend the hearing, may present evidence to the commander, and may request that the commander hear from certain witnesses. The commander must consider any information offered during the hearing, and must be personally convinced that the member actually committed misconduct before imposing punishment.

Permissible Punishments. Permissible punishments for enlisted personnel can include such actions as reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay (up to ½ of one month’s pay per month for two months), restriction to base or to the ship (up to 60 days), extra duties, correctional custody (up to 30 days), and a reprimand. For officers, permissible punishments can include forfeiture of pay (up to ½ of one month’s pay per month for two months), restriction to base or to the ship (up to 60 days), arrest in quarters (up to 30 days), and a reprimand. The actual maximum punishment under the circumstances depends upon the rank of the commander who imposes the punishment. Higher-ranking commanders may impose greater punishments than lower-ranking commanders may.

Right To Appeal. If the member considers the punishment to be unjust or to be disproportionate to the misconduct committed, he or she may appeal to higher authority. The appeal authority may set aside the punishment, decrease its severity, or deny the appeal, but may not increase the severity of the punishment.

Not A Conviction Record. Receipt of a non-judicial punishment does not constitute a criminal conviction.

Prosecutorial Discretion. In civilian communities, police and prosecutors exercise discretion in deciding whether an offense should be charged and offenders punished. In the military, commanders make this decision. Once the investigation is complete, the commander must make a decision about how to dispose of the case. Throughout the investigation, the commander has a lawyer (judge advocate) available to assist and provide advice. With the assistance of his lawyer, the commander decides whether a case will be resolved administratively, through a nonjudicial punishment action under Article 15, UCMJ, or referred to trial, and what the charges will be. The disposition decision is one of the most important and difficult decisions facing a commander. Each commander in the chain of command has independent, yet overlapping discretion to dispose of offenses within the limits of the officer’s authority. The commander at the lowest level makes the initial decision regarding disposition. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), superior commanders may not seek to improperly influence the subordinate commander’s exercise of independent judgment or disciplinary action. However, nothing prevents a superior commander from withholding authority to himself or herself to dispose of offenses in individual cases or types of cases (e.g., officers; drug cases, DUI).

Levels Of Disposition.  Charges can be disposed of at four levels within the military justice system: (1) by the unit commander who exercises immediate Article 15, UCMJ, jurisdiction over the accused; (2) by the summary court-martial convening authority (normally a battalion or squadron commander); (3) by the special court-martial convening authority (normally a battalion or squadron commander); and (4) by the general court-martial convening authority (normally a general officer who is commanding). Each commander or convening authority within the military justice chain has a range of available options and each commander exercises discretion in selecting one of the available options or makes a recommendation to a higher commander. As charges progress up the military justice chain, the convening authority has more options available. Any higher-level convening authority has all the powers and alternatives of any lower-level convening authority or commander. Thus a summary court-martial convening authority has available all the options of the immediate commander and additional alternatives as a convening authority. Similarly, a special court-martial convening authority is empowered to convene a summary court-martial as well as a special court-martial. Finally, a general court-martial convening authority possesses all the powers of the subordinate commanders and convening authorities.

Commander’s Range Of Options.  The commander has a number of options available for the resolution of disciplinary problems. Briefly summarized, they are as follows:

1. The commander may choose to take no action. While this may seem to be unusual, the circumstances surrounding an event actually may warrant that no adverse action be taken. The preliminary inquiry might indicate that the accused is innocent of the crime, that the only evidence is inadmissible, or the commander may decide that other valid reasons exist not to prosecute. A subordinate commander's decision not to take action is not binding on a superior commander’s independent authority to take action.

2. The commander may initiate administrative action against a servicemember. The commander might determine that the accused committed an offense, but that the best disposition for this offense and this offender is to take administrative rather than punitive action. A commander can initiate action against the servicemember, alone or in conjunction with action under the UCMJ. Administrative action is not punitive in character; instead, it is meant to be corrective and rehabilitative. Administrative actions include measures ranging from counseling or a reprimand to involuntary separation.

3. The commander may dispose of the offense with nonjudicial punishment. Article 15, UCMJ, is a means of handling minor offenses requiring immediate corrective action. A minor offense is one for which the maximum sentence imposable at a court-martial would not include a dishonorable discharge or confinement in excess of one year. If a commander imposes Article 15 punishment for a minor offense, trial by court-martial is barred. If a commander imposes Article 15 punishment, but the offense is not minor, later trial by court-martial is not barred. Nonjudicial punishment hearings are non-adversarial. They are not a "mini-trial" with questioning by opposing sides. The commander conducts the hearing. The servicemember may request an open or closed hearing, speak with an attorney about his case, have someone speak on his behalf, and present witnesses who are reasonably available. The rules of evidence do not apply. In order to find the servicemember "guilty," the commander must be convinced that the servicemember committed the offense. Generally speaking, the UCMJ and Manual for Courts-Martial establish maximum punishment limits based on the rank of the commander imposing punishment and the rank of the servicemember being punished. The servicemember has a right to appeal the imposing commander’s decision to the next-higher commander.

4.The commander may dispose of the offenses by court-martial. If the commander decides that the offense is sufficiently serious under the circumstances to warrant trial by court-martial, the commander may exercise the fourth option, preferring (initiating) charges and forwarding them to a commander possessing court-martial convening authority. Whenever charges are forwarded to a superior commander for disposition, the subordinate commander must make a personal recommendation as to disposition, to include the level of court that the subordinate commander believes to be appropriate. Here again, the commander first has the benefit of legal advice from his attorney (judge advocate).

The Accuser and How Charges Are Filed. The person who signs the charge sheet and attests to the accuracy of the charges is known as the accuser. Charges are filed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice by act of "preferral." Although, any person subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice may prefer charges, in most instances the unit commander prefers the charges.

Preferral Process. Charges are preferred (formally initiated) when the accuser, under oath, signs them before a commissioned officer of the armed forces authorized to administer oaths. The accuser must also state that he has personal knowledge or has investigated the matters set forth therein and believes they are true in fact to the best of his or her knowledge and belief. When an immediate commander acts as accuser, the commander may rely on the information developed in an investigative report.

This section is currently being updated. Please see your local DSO branch office for questions. 


The Armed Forces do not have permanently established trial courts for prosecuting military members. Courts-martial (military criminal trial courts) are convened (established) by commanders possessing the authority to do so, on an "as needed" basis.

Court-Martial Convening Authority. Congress, through the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), specifies which commanders and officials possess the authority to convene a court-martial. A commander who possesses the authority to convene a court-martial is known as a Convening Authority (CA). The CA convenes a court-martial by issuing an order that charges previously preferred (initiated) against an accused servicemember will be tried by a specified court-martial. This order is called a "convening order" and shall designate the type of court-martial (summary, special or general) that will try the charges. The convening order may designate when and where the court-martial will meet.

Detailing the Court-Martial Panel. For special and general courts-martial, the convening order will also designate the members of the court-martial panel (the military equivalent of the jury). Although the ultimate membership of the panel is determined, as in the civilian system, through voir dire, the CA initially details the panel members to the court-martial. As required by Congress in Article 25, UCMJ, the CA must choose members who are best qualified to serve based on their age, education, training, experience, length of service, and judicial temperament. However, it is the accused’s choice whether he or she will be tried by a panel of officers, a combined panel of officers and enlisted members, or by the military judge sitting alone.

Types Of Courts-Martial. The characteristics of the three different types of courts-martial are described below.
A summary court-martial has jurisdiction over all personnel, except commissioned officers, warrant officer, cadets, aviation cadets, and midshipmen, charged with a UCMJ offense referred to it by the convening authority.
  • Composed of one commissioned officer on active duty, usually pay grade O-3 or above
  • The accused member is not entitled to be represented by a military attorney, but may hire a civilian lawyer at his own expense. [In rare cases, military exigencies may preclude the reasonable availability of civilian counsel.] As a matter of Air Force policy, all accused at summary courts-martial are afforded representation by military counsel.
  • The accused member may object to trial by summary court-martial, in which case the charges are returned to the convening authority for further action (e.g., disposition other than by court-martial or action to send the charges to a special or general court-martial)
  • The maximum punishment a summary court-martial may award is: confinement for 30 days, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month, and reduction to the lowest pay grade (E-1)
  • In the case where the accused is above the fourth enlisted pay grade, a summary court-martial may not adjudge confinement, hard labor without confinement, or reduction except to the next lowest pay grade

This section is currently being updated. Please see your local DSO branch office for questions. 

This section is currently being updated. Please see your local DSO branch office for questions. 

Mortal Enemy. Unlawful Command Influence (UCI) has frequently been called the "mortal enemy of military justice." UCI occurs when senior personnel, wittingly or unwittingly, have acted to influence court members, witnesses, or others participating in military justice cases. Such unlawful influence not only jeopardizes the validity of the judicial process, it undermines the morale of military members, their respect for the chain of command, and public confidence in the military.

While some types of influence are unlawful and prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), other types of influence are lawful, proper, and in certain circumstances a necessary part of leadership. The prohibition against UCI does not mean that a commander may abdicate responsibility for correcting disciplinary problems. Rather, the commander must vigilantly insure that the command action does not encroach upon the independence of the other participants in the military justice system.

Rules In General. Here are some general rules regarding UCI:
  • The Commander may not order a subordinate to dispose of a case in a certain way. The law gives independent discretion to each commander at every level possessing authority to convene courts-martial. A senior commander may not try to influence the exercise of that discretion. However, a senior commander may:
    • Personally dispose of a case at the level authorized for that offense and for that commander
    • Send a case back to a lower-level commander for that subordinate’s independent action
    • Send a case to a higher commander with a recommendation for disposition
    • Withdraw subordinate authority on particular types of cases
    • Order charges pending at a lower level transmitted up for further consideration, including, if appropriate, referral
    • Mentor subordinates, but do so recognizing that there exists the potential for misinterpreting the commander’s intentions
  • The commander must not have an inflexible policy on the disposition of a case or the punishment to be imposed. A convening authority must consider each case individually on its own merits
  • A commander who is the accuser, may not thereafter act as a convening authority to refer the case to a court-martial. The commander is considered to be "disqualified" to act as a convening authority and must forward the charges to a superior convening authority. A commander is considered to be an accuser when he or she:
    • Formally signs and swears to the charges on the charge sheet (prefers the charges), or
    • Directs that the charges be signed and sworn to by another, or
    • Has an interest, other than an official interest, in the prosecution of the accused
  • The commander may neither select nor remove court members in order to obtain a particular result in a particular trial. Selections must be based upon the criteria contained in Article 25, UCMJ. Those criteria include: age and experience, education and training, length of service, and judicial temperament
  • No pressure may be placed on the military judge or court members to arrive at a particular decision
    • No person may invade the independent discretion of the military judge. Commanders may not question or seek explanation or justification for a judge’s decision
  • Witnesses may not be intimidated or discouraged from testifying
  • The court decides punishment. An accused may not be punished before trial, but may be placed in pretrial confinement if there is a risk of flight, if the accused poses a serious threat to the community, or if the accused is likely to engage in further misconduct
Impartial Review. When a convening authority reviews the result of a court-martial and determines whether to approve the findings and sentence, he or she does so in a judicial capacity. As such, the convening authority has a duty to review impartially military justice actions. The convening authority may not have an inflexible attitude towards clemency.
The rules and procedures in courts-martial are very similar to those in civilian courts. The following discusses some of those similarities and points out some of the differences.

Pretrial Conferences ("Meeting in Chambers" or 802's). As in many civilian courts, a legally trained judge presides over most courts-martial. The "military judge" may hold informal conferences to coordinate aspects of the trial. These are similar to conferences a civilian judge might have "in chambers." Under the military rules, "RCM 802 conferences" may be in person, or by phone, but may not be used to resolve contested issues. Contested procedural or legal issues must be resolved in court, on the record.

Pretrial Hearings. The military judge usually settles contested legal or procedural issues under Article 39(a), of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which allows him to conduct hearings for that purpose. Called "Article 39(a) sessions," the military judge may hear witnesses, take other evidence, and hear arguments, just as a civilian judge would during "motion hearings" in a civilian case. These sessions and most other proceedings of courts-martial are open to the public. As in civilian cases, Article 39(a) sessions take place outside the presence of the "court-martial members" who serve as the jury in military cases.

Arraignment. One of the first "Article 39(a) sessions" in a military case is typically "arraignment." Just as in civilian cases, the accused servicemember is informed of the charges against him and offered an opportunity to make a plea (i.e., "guilty" or "not guilty"). If the servicemember intends to plead guilty, before a formal plea may be accepted the military judge must ensure that the servicemember understands what he is doing and is acting voluntarily. This is called a "providency inquiry." Civilian judges have the same requirement, although the military inquiry is typically more extensive and fact-specific regarding the offenses.

The Court-Member Panel. Similar to civilian juries, court-martial members are officers or enlisted persons from the same community or command ("jury of peers") as the servicemember on trial. In civilian communities, serving on a jury is a duty of citizenship, and local court officials will "summon" citizens to serve as jurors. In the military, the commander assigns members to serve as jurors, and that becomes their primary military duty.

Voir Dire and Challenges. Just as with civilian jurors, court-martial members must be impartial and may make no decisions about a case until the military judge directs them to begin deliberations. Each side -- prosecution and defense -- gets a chance to ask the court-martial members questions to ensure that members are impartial. If a court-martial member's impartiality is brought into question, or if it is otherwise inappropriate for that member to serve on the court-martial, the military judge will dismiss him or her, as would a civilian judge. As is done in civilian courts, the prosecution or defense may also remove a court-martial member "peremptorily," meaning without a stated reason. In military practice, both the prosecution and defense are afforded one peremptory challenge. Also, like a civilian defendant, except in a capital case, a servicemember on trial may decide to have the judge decide his guilt or innocence, rather than court-martial members.

Trial on the Merits. Once the court-martial members are selected, the case is ready to proceed "on the merits," that is, evidence will be presented about the guilt or innocence of the servicemember. As with any civilian case, the military prosecutor (called a "trial counsel") presents evidence on the charges. The servicemember on trial (called "the accused") may confront this evidence and cross-examine any witnesses. The servicemember may also present evidence and, through the court-martial, compel witnesses to appear.

Rules Of Evidence. What evidence is admissible in a court-martial is spelled out in the Military Rules of Evidence (MRE). As required by the UCMJ, these rules are closely patterned after the Federal Rules of Evidence used in United States District Courts for civilian cases.

Defense Counsel. In all special and general court-martial cases, a military attorney, called a "defense counsel," represents the servicemember on trial. [Military attorneys are also known as "judge advocates."] This attorney is assigned free of charge to the servicemember. The servicemember may also request a specific military attorney to join his defense team and, if available, that attorney will also be assigned free of charge to the defense team. Finally, at his own expense, the servicemember may hire a civilian attorney (even so, the military attorneys remain assigned to the case).

Closing Arguments and Burden Of Proof. Mirroring the practice in civilian courts, once both prosecution and defense counsel have presented their evidence, they get to make "closing arguments." Following closing arguments, the military judge will instruct the court-martial members about the law and direct them to begin deliberations. Because all servicemembers are presumed to be innocent, the court-martial members must be satisfied that the evidence established the servicemember's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Deliberations and Voting. One departure from civilian cases arises in the way the court-martial members vote. Most civilian court systems require the jurors to vote unanimously to convict. Because of the need for expeditious resolution of cases, Congress directed that a vote of "two-thirds" of the court-martial members is needed before the accused may be found guilty of any offense charged. If the vote is less than a two-thirds to convict, a verdict of "not guilty" is required. As such, the military does not experience "hung juries," as do civilian jurisdictions. However, death penalty cases require a unanimous verdict. Voting is done by secret, written ballot. Although court-martial members are usually of different ranks, they are not permitted to use superiority of rank to influence or pressure another member.

Sentencing Proceeding. If the servicemember is convicted of any offense, the case proceeds immediately to the issue of sentencing. This is different from most civilian courts, where sentencing is delayed several weeks pending the completion of a presentencing report. In military cases, there is no presentencing report. Rather the prosecution and defense are expected to be prepared for this possibility and be ready to present evidence about the convicted servicemember and the offense.

Sentencing evidence includes the impact of the crime (both on a victim, and on a unit's discipline and morale), the servicemember's duty performance history, and extenuating or mitigating circumstances. Both the prosecution and defense may call witnesses. The accused may also testify, give an unsworn statement for consideration. At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence, the prosecution and defense meet with the military judge regarding sentencing instructions to be given in court-member cases and then counsel present arguments about what the appropriate sentence should be.

If a servicemember elected to waive his right to have court-martial members participate in his case, then the military judge will impose the sentence. However, if court-martial members found the servicemember guilty, they will also decide the sentence. This is another difference from the typical practice in civilian courts where a judge imposes the sentence in almost all cases. The only exceptions in both civilian and military courts are death penalty cases that require the participation of a jury.

Once the prosecution and defense finish presenting all their evidence and arguments on sentencing, the military judge or court-martial members will deliberate on the appropriate penalty. The types of sentences that can be imposed differ significantly from those imposed in civilian cases. In civilian courts, typical sentences may include death, confinement, or fines. A civilian judge may also impose probation, and he may require the completion of community service and mandatory treatment or education programs as a condition of probation. Although probation is not possible in military cases because a court-martial is a temporary entity created to resolve a particular case and adjourned when the sentence is imposed, sentences may subsequently be suspended by the court-martial convening authority.

Military sentences can include many different punishments such as death, confinement, separation from the service, reduction in pay grade, forfeiture of pay and allowances, fine, and reprimand. The maximum limits on punishments for each offense are set by Congress in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and defined in more detail by the President in the Manual for Courts-Martial. Unlike civilian courts, where an individual will receive a sentence on each count for which he is convicted (for example, if convicted of two counts of burglary, a civilian judge might sentence an individual to three years in prison for each count to run consecutively -- or a total of six years in prison). In the military, a court-martial imposes one overall sentence, no matter how many "counts" (termed "specifications") there are. The overall sentence limits are the sum of the limits on each "count" charged. For example, a servicemember charged with burglary before a general court-martial would face a maximum possible sentence of 5 years of confinement, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and dishonorable discharge. If charged and convicted of two counts of burglary, the servicemember could be sentenced to up to 10 years of confinement. [It is not legally permissible in a single case to adjudge forfeitures all pay and allowances twice, or to receive two dishonorable discharges. Only the potential confinement for each convicted offense is accumulated.] Also, there are no "sentencing guidelines" or minimum sentence requirements for military courts.

When deliberating about a sentence, any court-martial member may propose a certain sentence. The court-martial members will then vote secretly on each proposal. Notably, a sentence of death must be unanimous; a sentence for life imprisonment or confinement for more than ten years jail requires agreement by three-fourths vote; and a sentence for anything less requires a two-thirds agreement by the court-martial members. Once the sentence is announced, the court-martial is adjourned and the post-trial review processes begin.

This section is currently being updated. Please see your local DSO branch office for questions. 

This section is currently being updated. Please see your local DSO branch office for questions. 

This section is currently being updated. Please see your local DSO branch office for questions. 

Death is the authorized punishment for a number of very serious crimes. However, during peacetime the death penalty has only been sought and imposed in cases of felony-murder and premeditated murder. If the convening authority approves the sentence, there is a process of mandatory review of the facts, law and appropriateness of the sentence in terms of other similar cases. There is a right to petition the United States Supreme Court after the military appellate courts have reviewed a case. The President of the United States must approve all death sentences and signs the death warrant.

Capital Crimes. In order for a death penalty to be imposed the court-martial members (trial jurors) must reach a unanimous verdict that the servicemember is guilty of the crime. In the sentencing portion of a court-martial, in addition to the court-martial procedures required for other serious crimes, the members are required to make a unanimous finding that one or more specified aggravating factors exist and that they substantially outweigh any extenuating or mitigating circumstances. The military is what is called a "weighing jurisdiction." Throughout the review process, the accused is entitled to free military appellate defense counsel, in addition to retaining a civilian attorney at no expense to the government.

Review Process. A death sentence imposed by a court-martial must be approved by the convening authority and then reviewed by the appropriate Service Court of Criminal Appeals, and the U. S. Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces, prior to presidential review. The accused may also petition the U. S. Supreme Court for review. Assuming affirmation of the sentence at each stage of the review process, the Judge Advocate General (JAG) for a respective Service then forwards the case, with the JAG recommendation, to the Service Secretary. The Secretary cannot remit or suspend any part of a death sentence. The Service Secretary must forward the case to the President, usually with a recommendation by that Service Secretary. The President may request and consider input from the Attorney General, or any other executive branch department. The President then takes action approving, disapproving, or commuting the death sentence.

Habeas Corpus Petitions. After the President signs a death warrant, the accused can seek a writ of habeas corpus in the appropriate federal district court. The right of the accused to a military appellate defense counsel without cost extends to habeas corpus petitions filed in federal court, if requested by the accused.

Execution of Sentences. Only the President can order the execution of a death sentence. A sentence to death, which has been finally ordered executed, shall be carried out in the manner prescribed by the Service Secretary concerned. Currently, executions are by lethal injection.
Clemency. Clemency is an action by either the court-martial convening authority or a Clemency and Parole Board which may result in the mitigation, remission, or suspension of the whole or any part of an individual's court-martial sentence. To receive clemency from the convening authority, the accused may submit a request for clemency after the sentence is announced but before the convening authority takes final action. Pursuant to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Service Secretaries may also grant clemency on unexecuted portions of a court-martial sentence. Primarily the Service’s Clemency and Parole Boards exercise these clemency powers. Each board consists of five senior officers and provides recommendations and advice to the respective Service Secretary. Automatic clemency review is available to an accused depending on the length of confinement awarded and the branch of service. Clemency review can be waived.

Parole. Parole is the conditional release of an accused from confinement. The servicemember’s Service regulations should be reviewed to determine eligibility criteria. The eligible applicant must submit a parole plan to the appropriate Service’s Clemency and Parole Board. The parole plan must provide at a minimum a residence requirement, a requirement that the prisoner have either guaranteed employment, an offer of effective assistance to obtain employment, or acceptance in a bona fide educational or vocational program. Military prisoners transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to serve their sentence are paroled at the discretion of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The U. S. Probation office supervises all parolees.

In general, the Clemency and Parole Board looks at the following factors: the nature and circumstances of the crime; the military and civilian background of the offender; a substantial post-conviction educational or rehabilitative effort; post trial progress reports; recommendations of the military judge and legal officer; psychiatric evaluations; any statement by the victim; and, any restitution made to the victim.

Pardon. An individual may also petition for the highest form of clemency, a Presidential Pardon. Under Article II, Clause 1 of the Constitution, the President has the power to grant pardons for federal offenders. The pardon signifies forgiveness of an offense. However, a pardon will not change the nature of a discharge or expunge a record of conviction. Requests for pardons are handled through the Office of the Pardon Attorney, U. S. Department of Justice.

Correction of Military Records. Once an accused has exhausted all other possible remedies, another method for an accused to either modify or reduce a sentence may be by petition to the Board for the Correction of Military Records. Each Service has established a Board for the Correction of Service Records in order to correct military records, where such action is necessary or appropriate to correct an error or an injustice. These civilian boards are established pursuant to the statutory provisions of 10 U.S.C. § 1552. These boards cannot set aside a court-martial conviction, but may reduce or modify a sentence as a matter of clemency, even if the sentence has already been executed.
General. Separation of an accused in lieu of trial by court-martial is an administrative procedure that is available to resolve disciplinary matters and may be used in appropriate cases. Whether such administrative action is appropriate in a given case is a matter within the discretion of the approval authority. DOD and service regulations detail the procedures and requirements for such action. Generally, an accused initiates the request and, if approved, the accused is separated from military service. In exchange for such voluntary separation, the charges against the accused are dismissed. No regulation specifically authorizes retirement in lieu of court-martial; however, no regulation prohibits such action. A retirement-eligible servicemember may not be administratively discharged without the member’s consent. In other words, only a punitive discharge, awarded at court-martial, will divest retirement. Thus, in a given case, it may be appropriate to retire an individual instead of trying that person at court-martial. Additionally, an officer may be retired at a grade lower than the highest grade in which the officer served. While separation in lieu of court-martial is administrative in nature, the existence of such a procedure is recognized in the Military Rules of Evidence. Specifically, statements made in the course of a request for separation in lieu of court-martial, including admissions or acknowledgments of guilt, are not generally admissible in a court-martial.

Procedure and Approval Authority for Enlisted Personnel. DOD regulations provide the details regarding the procedure for the separation of enlisted personnel in lieu of court-martial. In addition, Service policies and procedures apply. There are three requirements that must be met when and accused requests discharge in lieu of court-martial. First, charges must be preferred against the accused. Second, the authorized maximum punishment for the offense, upon which separation is to be based, must include a punitive discharge. The Manual for Courts-Martial identifies those offenses that may be punished by a punitive discharge. Finally, there must be an assessment made that the accused is unqualified for future military service. This determination may be based on the seriousness of the charged offense(s) and the related circumstances, as well as other factors related to the service of the accused.

A request for discharge in lieu of trial by court-martial must also meet several requirements. Specifically, the request must be in writing and signed by the accused. The accused must be afforded the opportunity to consult with legal counsel and if legal counsel is sought, counsel must sign the request. Additionally, in the request the accused must state that he or she understands the elements of the charged offense and the consequences of administrative separation. This understanding must also acknowledge the possibility of an adverse characterization of service. The discharge case file must also contain either an acknowledgement that the accused is guilty of an offense for which a punitive discharge is authorized or a summary of the evidence supporting the guilt of the accused. Statements made by the accused or defense counsel in connection with the discharge request are not admissible against the accused in a court-martial should the discharge request be disapproved.

In most cases, the approval authority for discharge in lieu of court-martial is the appropriate General Court-Martial Convening Authority. The sole exception to this is that a Special Court-Martial Convening Authority may approve separations that are based only on the offense of unauthorized absence of greater than 30 days.

Procedure and Approval Authority for Officers. Service regulations provide the details regarding the procedure for separation of officers in lieu of court-martial. Generally, the request procedures are similar to those relating to enlisted personnel. The primary difference is that the Secretary of the applicable service is the approval authority. The reason for this is that such requests are really requests by the officer to resign his or her commission. Officer commissions are held at the pleasure of the President, who has delegated resignation approval authority to Service Secretaries.

Types of Discharges. Normally, requests for administrative discharge in lieu of trial by court-martial are characterized as discharges Under Other Than Honorable Conditions (OTH). There are three types of administrative discharge characterizations: Under Other Than Honorable Conditions (OTH), General (under Honorable Conditions), and Honorable. The serious nature of the misconduct and the circumstances warranting trial by court-martial generally support the appropriateness of a OTH discharge. Characterization of service as General (under honorable conditions) is authorized only where appropriate. A General discharge may be appropriate, for example, if the offense is relatively minor or if the service of the individual is otherwise particularly meritorious. An Honorable discharge is only authorized if the individual's record of service is so meritorious that any other characterization would be inappropriate.

Judicial Circuits
Judicial Circuit Principal Office Websites Days/Hours Phone Number Normal Areas of Responsibility
Rules of Court
Washington, D.C. Website


0730 – 1630

(202) 685-5893 -- Maine; New Hampshire; Vermont; Ohio; Massachusetts; Rhode Island; Connecticut; New York; New Jersey; Pennsylvania; Delaware; Maryland; The National Capitol Region which includes: Naval District Washington, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia, Naval Weapons Station Dahlgren, Virginia; West Virginia; Illinois; Michigan; Minnesota; Wisconsin; Indiana; Kentucky; Nebraska; Tennessee; Arkansas; and Missouri.
Rules of Court
Norfolk, VA 0730 – 1630 (757) 341-4570 -- Virginia (except those areas designated as within the Northern Circuit).
Rules of Court
Camp Lejeune, NC Website 0730 – 1630 (910) 451-3503 -- North Carolina including all Marine Corps bases, air stations, camp, depots and logistics bases within the state.
Rules of Court
Parris Island / Beaufort, SC 0730 - 1630 (843) 228 - 2559 -- South Carolina; Alabama; Western Florida; Mississippi; Louisiana; Georgia; and Texas.
Jacksonville / Mayport, FL 0730 – 1630 (904) 270-5445 Ext 3005 -- Eastern Florida; the Caribbean Sea to include Panama, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Rules of Court
San Diego, CA  Website 0730 – 1630 (619) 556-6580 -- Arizona; New Mexico; Nevada; California; Oklahoma; Kansas; Colorado; and Utah (except those areas designated as within the Camp Pendleton area of responsibility).
Bremerton, WA 0730 – 1630 (360) 476-6466 -- Alaska; Washington; Oregon; Idaho; Montana; Wyoming; North Dakota; and South Dakota.
Camp Pendleton, CA 0730 – 1630 (760) 725-6273 -- All Marine Corps bases, air stations, camps, depots and logistics bases within the Western Judicial Circuit.
Rules of Court
Yokosuka, Japan 0730 – 1630 DSN: 315-243-7262
COMM: 011-81-46-816-7262
-- Okinawa and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni; Japan; New Zealand; Australia; Korea; Asia; Guam; Philippines; Diego Garcia; and areas of Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans not included within another circuit.
Okinawa, Japan 0730 – 1630 011-81-611-745-2156 / 7287
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI Website 0730 – 1630 (808) 473-4597 -- Hawai'i
Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe Bay Website 0730 – 1630 (808) 257-9918
Rules of Court
Naples, Italy 0730 - 1630 DSN 314-626-4482 -- All Atlantic Ocean areas not assigned to a circuit; All of Europe; Africa; countries of the Middle East and Southwest Asia; Iceland; the Persian Gulf; the Mediterranean Sea; and the Red Sea.