Types of Courts-Martial in the U.S. Military
Many are familiar with the term "court-martial" and understand that this refers to the US Military's criminal justice system. However, few are aware that different types of court-martial exist and even fewer understand the differences in forum. This guide defines the three different courts-martial.
General Court-MartialA General Court-Martial (GCM) is reserved for the most serious of offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It is commonly viewed as the equivalent of a felony level trial in civilian practice. Per the Rules for Court Martial (RCM), a GCM may be imposed upon any person subject to the UCMJ for any offense made punishable under the UCMJ and may adjudge any punishment under RCM 1003. Such punishments include (depending on the offense): Confinement up to life in the Brig; Reduction in rank to E-1; Dismissal; Dishonorable Discharge; Total forfeiture of pay; and, Fine. Death may be adjudged if specifically authorized for the offense and if the case is referred with special instruction that it be tried as capital.
Before a case may be tried at a GCM, a Preliminary Hearing must be conducted pursuant to Article 32, UCMJ. The purpose of this hearing is not to determine guilt or innocence. Instead, it is to determine the appropriateness of the charges and recommend an appropriate forum for the case to be heard. The Preliminary Hearing Officer then makes his/her findings and recommendations in writing. Once this is complete, the GCM Convening Authority (GCMCA) may then refer the case to a GCM. The GCMCA is typically the first General/Flag Officer in the chain of command.
At GCM, the accused may demand trial by Jury (minimum 5 members) or Military Judge alone. Additionally, if the accused is Enlisted, he/she may demand that at least 1/3 of the Jury be Enlisted. The Accused will be provided a military Defense Counsel free of charge and may retain civilian representation at no cost to the Government.
Special Court-MartialA Special Court-Martial (SPCM) is often seen as the equivalent of a misdemeanor trial due to the limitations on punishment that may be received at SPCM. At SPCM, individuals subject to the UCMJ may be confined for up to 1 year, receive a forfeiture of up to 2/3 of their pay per month for not more than 1 year, be discharged from the service with a bad-conduct discharge, be reduced to E-1, and be given a fine.
If the Accused elects to have a Jury determine his/her fate (instead of Military Judge alone), there must be at least 3 members. Additionally, the same rule for 1/3 Enlisted representation applies to the Jury composition if the Accused is Enlisted and elects to have Enlisted representation. The Accused will be provided a military Defense Counsel free of charge and may retain civilian representation at no cost to the Government.
Summary Court-MartialA Summary Court-Martial (SCM) is the least serious of the three types of courts-martial. Convictions at a SCM are rarely - if ever - included in a person's civilian criminal record (unlike GCM and SPCM convictions which most likely would be included in a civilian criminal record).
At a SCM, there is typically no Military Judge, no Defense Counsel for the Accused, no Trial Counsel/Prosecutor, and no Jury. A SCM is composed of a commissioned officer who serves as the SCM Officer (appointed by the SCM Convening Authority), and the Accused. This lack of Defense Counsel and right to Jury is what leads most civilian jurisdictions not to accept SCM findings of guilt as criminal convictions.
The SCM Officer's duty is to thoroughly and impartially inquire into both sides of the matter and to ensure that the interests of both the Government and the Accused are safeguarded and that justice is done. Typically, the SCM Officer is not a lawyer. Because of this, the SCM Officer may seek legal advice from a judge advocate on questions of law, but may not seek advice from any person on factual conclusions.
While the SCM is much less formal than GCM or SPCM, the Accused still maintains the following rights: to make pleas of guilty, not guilty, or no plea at all at which time the SCM Officer will enter pleas of not guilty for the Accused; to file motions; to confront Government witnesses and evidence; to present his/her own witnesses and evidence.
Finally, the Accused must be given a reasonable amount of time to decide if he/she wishes to accept or object to trial by SCM. If the Accused objects to trial by SCM, the charges shall be returned to the Convening Authority. The Convening Authority may then take subsequent action and may refer the case to a SPCM. If the Accused does not object, trial at SCM may continue.
Limitations on SCM - SCMs no longer have jurisdiction over sexual offenses or attempts to commit sexual offenses under Articles 80, 120, 120b, and 125. Additionally, the following limitations on punishments exist: confinement not to exceed 30 days; forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for one month, and reduction to the lowest pay grade. If the Accused is E-5 or above, he/she may not be confined for any period of time or reduced in rank except to the next lower pay grade.