What Is The Difference Between A Court Martial And A General Court Martial?

What Is The Difference Between A Court Martial And A General Court Martial?

September 28, 2021 Off By Glespynorson

A court martial, also called a military court martial, refers to a trial of service members that happens within a military court. It is almost similar to a criminal trial, but it is exclusively for service members with an offense or a serious criminal violation.

“Court-martial” is used as a general term, but it has three specific types — summary, special, and general court-martial. Out of the three, the general court is the highest level of court, often convened for serious offenses such as felonies.

In understanding what a general court martial is, it is first important to understand the other levels of court-martials and levels of jurisdiction.

3 Types of Court Martials

Court martials have the power to lay verdicts and decide upon punishments for military men who have committed an offense. These may include military branches such as the navy, army, marines, coast guard, and the air force.

For less serious offenses, a Non-Judicial Punishment (NJP) is usually the basis of sanctions. However, for more serious misconduct and criminal offenses, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provides three forms of court martials to handle varying offense levels.

  • Summary court martial – The lowest level court is not often convened due to lack of necessity since these are for low-level offenses. Military judges are usually not required, and a military officer can preside over the trial. A summary court martial does not handle criminal offenses. Service members can actually refuse summary court martials, but will face special court martials instead.
  • Special court martial – A special court is a mid-level or intermediate court martial that handles serious crimes. This level requires a military judge and a jury to proceed with a trial. Special court martials can impose stiff penalties, and if proven guilty and convicted, can face confinement.

The maximum punishments for a summary court trial are 30 days of confinement, hard labor, forfeiture of pay, or getting the lowest pay grade. They may also impose dishonorable discharge and dismissal, but they cannot impose the death penalty.


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  • General court martial– The general court martial is the highest court level and convenes for felony cases. This level requires a military judge that the Judge Advocate General selects. It has a jury that consists of a minimum of five personnel.

Punishment for a guilty verdict in such cases will be based on what is prescribed by law. The guilty military can also be bestowed a dishonorable discharge from the service.

In the military, the jury is called panel of members. The jury members are selected from the same military base, which means they may know the person on trial personally. However, the military has a way of keeping the jury members impartial as they first have to undergo a series of tests and questioning.

The entire court martial process can take weeks, months, or even years. depending on the complexity of the case. Court martial appeals can take two to four years after a conviction.

General Court Martial Process

In general court martials, the usual process starts with the decision of a Commander or high-ranking official to put the questionable serviceman under investigation. If someone is known to have allegedly committed a serious violation of military rules or criminal offense, the Commander can decide the type of investigation to implement. It can either be an administrative investigation or let the law enforcers handle it.

Depending on the result of the investigation, the Commander can decide whether to prosecute or give an administrative punishment. The Commander can order a general court martial to convene if the offense is serious misconduct and the investigation has found substantial evidence.

The jury that will decide the prosecution is composed of officers who will determine if the service member is guilty of a crime. The service member can have the privilege of having military counsel appointed to them. A majority jury vote will decide the verdict of the case.

The most severe punishments that a service member can get from a general court martial include the death penalty, maximum time of confinement, complete forfeiture of pay, and any other punishment permitted by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Further sanctions may include dishonorable discharge and dismissal from service.