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A court-martial is a federal court convened by a Commanding Officer/General to adjudicate the alleged criminal misconduct of a military servicemember. A court-martial is the military’s version of a criminal trial, in which other members of the military render a finding on a servicemember’s guilt or innocence, and any ensuing punishment. Depending on the severity of the charges, a court-martial will take one of the following three forms:
General courts-martial are reserved for the most serious crimes, including murder, sexual assault, and high-dollar larceny and/or fraud. A Commanding Officer/General may refer such charges to a general court-martial because this type of proceeding has no maximum jurisdictional limitations on punishment. The jury at a general court-martial can punish as much as the criminal statute allows—and many criminal statutes calculate duration of confinement in decades rather than in years. A pretrial Article 32 hearing is required before charges can be referred to a general court-martial.
Special courts-martial usually handle criminal matters of a misdemeanor-type nature such as a drug offense, simple assault, orders violations, or unlawful absence. Punishment may not include confinement longer than one year. Though less grave than general courts-martial convictions, a special court-martial conviction will result in a criminal record for the military member and could have serious adverse effects on servicemember’s career, benefits, and future.
Summary courts-martial are generally uncontested administrative hearings, rarely offered unless the servicemember acknowledges misconduct. There is no judge or jury present at a summary court-martial; instead, a sole officer chosen by the Commanding Officer/General hears the matter and renders a decision on punishment. Outcomes can include confinement up to 30 days, but neither criminal conviction nor punitive discharge is permissible. Nonetheless, consequences of a summary court-martial decision can be serious, and a servicemember considering pleading guilty to one should seek a court-martial attorney.