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What is a Court Martial?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A court martial is a military equivalent to the civilian court system. Only members of the military or prisoners of war may be tried by court martial, and a series of specific rules governs the administration of courts martial. Many militaries around the world have instituted a courts martial system to handle military justice. These systems have also undergone substantial reforms since a general rise in the promotion of human rights and equality has occurred around the world.

People are tried by court martial for violations of military law, rather than civilian law, although military law encompasses many civilian crimes, such as theft. Most militaries have a code of justice such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in the United States. Under this code, crimes and their appropriate punishments are clearly spelled out. Soldiers may be court martialed for things like abusing prisoners of war or violating military honor codes in addition to more mundane crimes like vandalism.

The concept of a court martial separates members of the military from civilians. This is part of general military culture, which enforces a clear division between the two. Since soldiers are representatives of their governments, it is important to ensure that they behave appropriately. The court martial process is also used as a learning process, with many countries encouraging soldiers to defend themselves with the assistance of a trained advocate, and other soldiers assisting in the investigation and trial proceedings.

Just like civilians, soldiers have a number of basic rights. These rights vary from nation to nation, but in general soldiers may gather evidence to support their position and call witnesses. They are also not obligated to incriminate themselves, and in some countries, soldiers who may be subject to court martial must be warned in advance by their superiors. The trial must also include a neutral panel of judges who will be able to fairly weigh the evidence, and soldiers may appeal the verdict if they find it unfair.

As in a civilian trial, a court martial is based on gathered evidence which is collected by specialists. The proceedings for a proper trial are carefully laid out in military documents which also include sentencing guidelines. Courts martial are an important part of maintaining military discipline, and they also help to boost civilian faith in the military. Seeing soldiers on trial for their crimes indicates that the military has a sense of accountability and honor, and this can reassure civilians who are concerned about the closed nature of the military.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By jcraig — On Nov 05, 2011

@titans62 - I was wondering about the punishment part, too, so I looked it up. Apparently, there is some type of imprisonment system. Hard labor and pay reductions are some other types of punishments that can be given out. If I understand the system correctly, instead of things like misdemeanors and felonies, there are different courts martial levels that determine severity of the crime. In some cases they can even sentence someone to death.

I was curious about where the military judges come from. Are they experienced judge advocates or just regular officers that have been given the position? What about the appeals process, too? Is there a special military appeals court, and can cases ever end up before the US Supreme Court?

By titans62 — On Nov 05, 2011

@Izzy78 - I often wondered about that, too. When I was graduating college, I actually thought about becoming a lawyer and was looking at different job opportunities. The military was one of them.

From the way I understood it, you would get a regular law degree and then you could sign on with the military in one of the officer programs. They have a special track just for military attorneys. These are the people that defend soldiers who have been charged with various crimes.

If I remember correctly, before you join, you have to have passed the bar exam for your state. You do make a good point, though, about getting training for military law. I would assume that is part of the officer's training.

Another thing I started wondering about was how people were punished after a court marshal. Does the military have special jails that work like civilian jails or is there another system? Would the crimes show up on a criminal record?

By Izzy78 — On Nov 04, 2011

Back to another TV show, I am pretty sure that the plot of JAG revolves around courts martial cases in the Navy. I have never watched it, though.

Where do the court martial lawyers come from? Does the military have regular civilian lawyers that they "contract" out to be lawyers for the government, or do the lawyers come from inside the military somehow? Are the lawyers still held to the same standards as normal criminal lawyers like having passed a bar exam and even some type of certification surrounding military law?

Is there any difference in how an Air Force court martial or another branch would work compared to any another branch?

By Clairdelune — On Nov 03, 2011

It's interesting to note that in some countries, if a soldier is ordered to go before a military court to be tried for a court martial offense, that he/she is encouraged to participate in the investigation of his own case. He does have the aid of a court martial attorney. And the surprising part is that his co-workers and friends help too.

Usually in civilian law, criminal defendants are told it's not a good idea to defend themselves and the court will appoint a lawyer to take care of everything.

By sweetPeas — On Nov 02, 2011

There are, of course, many actions that are illegal both in civilian life and in the military - like assault and stealing. But the structure of civilian society and military society are very different.

In the military, things are set up so the organization needs to have orders trickle down from the highest status personnel. Military people must follow orders.

In civilian life, we have many more freedoms of choice. It is not a crime to "disobey" except for the laws of the land.

In times of war is when things get a bit dicey. Soldiers may be ordered to commit acts that they don't feel are right. If they refuse, they could very likely face a court martial. This is where military policy needs to be looked at frequently so that truly inhumane orders are not given.

By lonelygod — On Nov 01, 2011

@popcorn - NCIS is a great show, but one of my favorite examples of a court martial appears in the classic film, Paths of Glory, made way back in 1957. The plot revolves around the French Colonel Dax, who after refusing what amounts to a suicide mission against German soldiers, is charged with cowardice.

The movie always made me wonder if some of the charges that a court martial attorney would have to fight against would just never happen in a civilian court. I can understand why we need a military court, but sometimes I think they go to far. I don't see not killing yourself and men as cowardice.

What does everyone think are some interesting portrayals of a court martial in pop culture?

By Kat919 — On Nov 01, 2011

@gravois - I think it's kind of like how if you are arrested in real life, sometimes you get off with a warning, sometimes you make a plea deal, and sometimes you face a trial. So perhaps your cousin was told, "Accept dishonorable discharge, or we'll court-martial you and you could do prison time." Like a plea bargain. A court martial is basically a trial, and it sounds like the military didn't really want to go to all that trouble and expense for someone who was, I imagine, smoking pot or something along those lines.

I love how the article used the correct plural: "courts martial." A court martial is a court. What kind of court? A martial one. Americans get confused any time the noun comes before the adjective. Courts martial, attorneys general, etc.

By popcorn — On Nov 01, 2011

Having court martial cases seems to be a pretty big plot point in a lot of television shows, especially those that you could describe as a sort of military drama. I like to watch the show NCIS, and they have used the threat of a court martial in a few episodes and it always triggers a sense of worry, as that is one of the worst things that can happen to someone in the military.

I think the who idea of a navy court martial can be very dramatic. I remember one episode of NCIS:Call of Silence, where a long retired solider faced a court martial after confessing to a battlefield incident many years ago. It all worked out in the end though, as the NCIS team managed to get the idea of a court martial of the table.

By gravois — On Nov 01, 2011

Can anyone help me understand the difference between a court marshal and a discharge? I am curious because my cousin was dishonorably discharged from the army about 10 years ago. And he was released for something that is illegal in civilian life. But he was never court marshaled.

So how does the armed services draw this line/ What offenses are court marshalable and which would you only receive a discharge for/

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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