Military Courts Martial: An Overview

Today, I want to educate you about military courts martials. I should start out by telling you that I am NOT a lawyer and this article is for EDUCATIONAL purposes only.   Please keep in mind this just a “101” overview about military court martials.  It’s not designed to teach you every single aspect of it.

Courts martials are not that common in the military.  Yes, they do happen from time-to-time, but most offenses are handled within the chain of command, with some other type of punishment, such as a corrective action, Bar to Reenlistment, FLAG, Article 15 or rank reduction.   During my fifteen years in the Army I only witnessed one courts martial and I only heard about one other one.

Here are some basic things you should know about courts martials:

  • The easiest way to explain what a court martials is to think of it as a military court
  • It’s the military’s version of a civilian criminal trial
  • In the military, there are three types of courts martials to include summary, special and general
  • They can be held anywhere, but are typically done in a military courtroom
  • Twelve categories of people are subject to courts martials to include Soldiers, Prisoners of War, and even some civilians
  • In most cases, when a Soldier commits a crime, it is first handled by their chain of command: the chain of command decides whether to handle it in house or “prefer” charges
  • Preferring charges is the first step in the courts martial process
  • The type of courts martial used depends upon the severity of the crime and the rank of the Soldier involved (officer or enlisted)

What I want to talk about now is the three types of military courts martials.  I will just share some bullet points to give you a brief overview of each one.

Summary Courts Martial               

  • This is only for enlisted Soldiers
  • They are headed by one commissioned officer, a JAG Officer
  • Only used for non-capital offenses
  • Punishment is based on the grade of the accused
  • The accused must consent to this type of courts martial
  • Accused is not allowed to testify, have a lawyer or cross-examine witnesses
  • Punishments could include confinement, hard labor, reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay, Bad Conduct Discharge, etc.

Special Courts Martial

  • Used for non-capital and some capital offenses
  • Consists of not less than three military members and a judge
  • Has the judge, trial counsel and defense counsel
  • Accused can ask for a judge alone
  • Reviews offenses that would be considered misdemeanors in civilian court
  • It may impose any punishment authorized except death, 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.
  • Maximum punishment could include year-long confinement, up to three months of hard labor without confinement, loss up to 2/3 monthly pay for one year, reduction in pay grade, or Bad Conduct Discharge

General Courts Martial

  • The most serious type of courts martial
  • Reserved for most serious offenses, things that would be considered felonies in the civilian world
  • They conduct an Article 32 pre-trial hearing before the courts martial
  • The accused can choose between a judge or a panel of five members
  • An enlisted accused can ask for up to 1/3 of the court to be enlisted
  • Can receive the death penalty (depending on the crime), although very uncommon

What Type of Offenses Can Lead to a Courts Martial?

What I want to do below is give you some examples of crimes that could lead to a courts martial.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a good starting point.

  1. Accessory to a crime
  2. Conspiracy
  3. Fraudulent enlistment or appointment
  4. Desertion
  5. AWOL
  6. Missing movement
  7. Contempt towards superior officer
  8. Disrespect towards superior officer
  9. Assaulting or disobeying superior officer
  10. Insubordinate conduct
  11. Mutiny
  12. Failure to obey orders
  13. Unlawful detention
  14. Releasing a prisoner without authority
  15. Aiding the enemy
  16. Spies
  17. Espionage

This information came from the courts martial manual.

Final Thoughts

In summary, a military courts martial is the military’s version of a civilian criminal trial.  Most discipline issues are handled in house by the chain of command with other administrative and punitive punishments.  Courts martials are typically reserved for more serious crimes such as desertion, rape, murder, theft, assault, etc.

Whether you are an accused Soldier going before a courts martial, a small unit leader, or someone selected to serve as “the jury” during a courts martial, I hope you will take the time to educate yourself about the do’s and don’ts when it comes to courts martials. Be informed.

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever participated in a military courts martial before?  If so, leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the experience.  I look forward to hearing from you.


chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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9 thoughts on “Military Courts Martial: An Overview”

  1. I know one person who went through a court martial. She was involved in a sham marriage – one of those arrangements where she married a civilian so he could get military dependent benefits and she could claim a dependent. She was convicted of fraud and ended up in the brig. I’m not sure if the guy faced any charges.

  2. It would be interesting to get a list of many different types of courts martial proceedings, and their outcomes. I really wonder how many cases of treason have been registered in the last decade. I know desertion has been a big issue, especially during wartime. I also am curious about fraudulent enlistment or appointment. Would this be the case if say a soldier was a private and put on officer insignia? As I said, law issues have always been of interest to me.

  3. This was a very interesting post. I have always been a fan of law subjects, and I often wish I would have attended law school. There are a few things here I did not realize, after all, I watched the show JAG all the time. I wonder how consistent that show was with the real thing.

    I was surprised that in a summary courts martial that the accused essentially has no defense. They cannot even speak for themselves and that does make me wonder a bit.

    You also mentioned that in some cases civilians can be court martialed. In what circumstances would this be? I would think that just espionage or similar crimes. Are there others?

    Thank you for this info.

  4. I did not know all the details about court martials either. This article breaks things down really well and clears up things I was curious about.

    I wound up sitting in on a court martial when I was in the U.S. Air Force. We had nothing going on at the moment on the flight line and my chief at the time said we should go watch for the education.

    3 or 4 of us went up there and we were allowed to go in and watch. A man was being charged with using drugs and we listened to the whole thing.

    He was kicked out obviously with a dishonorable discharge. That affected him the rest of his life.

    It was a definite education. I’m glad I sat in on it.

    You have a good site here. Keep up the good work.

    Scott Moore

    1. Great experience and great story. I’d like to see every Soldier sit in on a courts martial just so they can learn that their can be HUGE consequences to your actions, especially if you do the wrong thing.

  5. Theresa Williams

    I knew there were three different kinds of Military Courts Martial but I did not know the differences between them. This was a great breakdown. Something I also didn’t know was that in the Summary Courts Martial the accused is not allowed to testify. Do you know why?

    1. I think it’s because the summary courts martial is designed to be fast. Anyone has the right to turn down that type of courts martial and have it automatically updated to the special courts martial.

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