The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is the military law that governs members of the U.S. armed forces. It deals with many issues that are unique to members of the military. Some of these include absent without leave (AWOL), desertion, fraudulent enlistments, and failure to obey lawful orders. A few sections deal with criminal behavior such as murder, manslaughter, rape, or drunk driving. Much like civilian law, the code specifies the punishment for offenses and offers a foundation for conducting court martials or hearings.
An early version of the UCMJ was adopted in 1806. Known as the Articles of War, these statutes were loosely based on British military law. In 1950, a more detailed set of rules was passed by Congress, and became effective approximately one year later. This version was designed to make laws uniform across all branches of the military, so it was christened the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The UCMJ addresses many key issues that military members must deal with during their period of service. A few of these include obeying the orders of senior officers, desertion, conspiracy, and being AWOL. The code also instructs soldiers how to behave if they are taken as a prisoner of war (POW), as well as how to treat enemy prisoners in their care.
Service members who commit certain crimes can be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This may be in lieu of being charged in a civilian court, but can also be in addition to facing charges elsewhere. The nature of the offense and where the incident occurred all play a role in this.
Soldiers who are charged with an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice may be court-martialed, depending on the seriousness of the charges. Article 39 of the UCMJ gives specific instructions for this procedure. Much like a civilian trial, a court martial is presided over by a judge and the case presented by a prosecutor. The service member may be assigned a military lawyer, which is called a judge advocate. As in civilian courtrooms, the burden of proof is on the government, and a jury of the service member’s peers must declare the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice helps ensure that laws are applied fairly to members of all branches of the service. This code also provides guidance for soldiers to use in performing their assigned duties. Studying the UCMJ is a good way to learn about military law and how it applies to service members.