Click to Call 253-317-8494

What is a Court-Martial?

A court-martial is a military criminal trial that is governed by the military rules of evidence. The court-martial offenses that are charged are military-specific offenses that come from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, often called the UCMJ. A military court martial is presided by over a military judge who is a senior military officer who is also a judge advocate.
Generally speaking a court martial will last anywhere from a half a day up to several weeks depending upon the nature of the allegations, and also depending upon the nature of the trial itself. If the trial is merely a guilty plea, those generally will only take about a half a day including sentencing.
On the other hand, if the member is contesting the trial and is demanding his rights to a trial of the facts by the court martial, that can last anywhere from two to four days on average. If the specific offense is one that includes a death or a homicide, generally speaking those will last longer, anywhere from a week to two weeks, or even multiple weeks if it’s a death penalty level trial.


Military courts-martial can prosecute offenses that occur both on an installation or base and off an installation or base. Military courts-martial can cover offenses that are known as “military-specific” offenses, such as disobeying the order of a superior commissioned officer and absence without leave, and courts-martial can also cover more general crimes, such as murder, larceny, and drug offenses.


A court-martial is a military trial conducted over a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, or Coastguardsman, whether enlisted or officer. Article 2 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice lays out when the military has jurisdiction over the person the military is targeting for prosecution.


There are three kinds of courts-martial: general, special, and summary. A general court-martial is most often equated to a felony level trial in the civilian world and a conviction at a general court-martial will become reportable as a federal felony conviction. A special court-martial is often, but not always, equated to be a misdemeanor level trial. Some states will assess a special court-martial conviction as a felony conviction if that particular state looks to whether or not the maximum possible punishment was one year or more. Finally, a summary court-martial is neither a misdemeanor, nor a felony; it is also not normally a qualifying conviction for reporting purposes. A summary court-martial is generally seen to be an elevated Article 15 / NJP/ Captains Mast with the member facing the potential of confinement up to 30 days.


The process of a military court-martial tracks similarly to that of a civilian criminal trial, but there are distinct differences in how the court-martial comes into existence, known as preferral and later referral.


The military rules for courts-martial explain how certain level commanders have varying authority to convene certain kinds of courts-martial and the manner that panel members are selected.

Not every criminal defense attorney understands the intricacies of military justice practice. A keen knowledge of military procedure is vital to ensure that your defense is optimizing every possible failing by the government in adhering to that process. In some instances, there are viable motions to dismiss or to grant other favorable action that can be missed if the attorney is not well versed in the process of military justice practice.


A motion is a formal request, usually required to be in writing and in a standard form that the particular judicial circuit mandates, for a certain action that helps your case. There are procedural motions, which are motions that raise an error in the process that brought your case to court-martial. There are also substantive motions that ask the court to exclude evidence (like a confession or a physical piece of evidence such as a weapon) or for a preliminary ruling that a certain piece of evidence (whether the testimony of a certain witness or a line of cross-examination) is admissible. Additional motions can ask the court to dismiss an entire case or one or more offenses from your charge sheet for various procedural or substantive reasons. Motions often are a pivotal step in your defense strategy. In many instances, the motions practice will enable the attorney to plan tactics and develop the case theory of your defense. Explore additional information about motions practice.


The procedural rules are vastly different in a court-martial as compared to a civilian trial. Not every criminal defense attorney understands the intricacies of military justice practice. A keen knowledge of military procedure is vital to ensure that your defense is optimizing every possible failing by the government in adhering to that process.

For questions about courts-martial practice, motions, and the procedures involved in a court-martial, contact the Law Office of Jocelyn C. Stewart at 253-317-8494