What to do When You are Facing a Court-Martial 

In military service, good order and discipline are non-negotiable.  To ensure adherence to these principles, Congress has given the Armed Forces their own complete criminal court system, with the power to hand down lifelong convictions and deal out a full range of punishments.  These can include both lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty.  Understand that the best trained, funded and staffed prosecutors in America are spearheading your prosecution.  In the face of such overwhelming odds, your only hope lies in securing legal representation that combines tenacious advocacy and skilled expertise.

What Exactly is a Court-Martial?

Every day in America, men and women in uniform face trials in the military’s unique legal jurisdiction.  Known as “courts-martial”, these proceedings actually include a lengthy series of different processes, spread across multiple stages and involve the participation of various actors and authorities.  As with each criminal courts in state and federal systems, courts-martial have their own distinct and complex rules and procedures.  There are judges, juries, and attorneys that deal with witnesses, testimony, exhibits, and evidence.  While normally reserved for more serious offenses, the option of prosecuting a servicemember through a court-martial is always on the table for military authorities.

The Wide Net of Court-Martial Jurisdiction

Many do not realize that the reach of a military court-martial isn’t just limited to incidents on the base.  All active military servicemembers are always within the reach of potential prosecution, regardless of your mission, assignment, duty, or location.  On leave?  After duty hours?  Out in town?  In a foreign country?  It doesn’t matter.  Likewise, the Uniform Code of Military Justice gives commanders a virtually unlimited range of legal authority to punish the full spectrum of offenses.  With unique statutes like Article 133 (Conduct Unbecoming) and Article 134 (the General Article), a court-martial can try and convict a servicemember for any act of misconduct—even those actions that are not yet covered by any criminal statute.

Deciphering the Types of Court-Martials

  • General Court-Martial (GCM):  Unlimited authority.  While often reserved for the most serious offenses, a General Court-Martial (GCM) may technically be used for any military crime.  Viewed by civilian authorities as a felony-equivalent court, such as “superior” or “supreme” court in some states, a GCM may adjudge any punishment under the UCMJ and may only take cases that first undergo a preliminary hearing under UCMJ Article 32.  More importantly, other federal laws place special importance on a conviction or sentence resulting from a GCM, causing high-stake collateral consequences when it comes to things like firearms ownership and Veteran’s Administration (VA) benefits.
  • Special Court-Martial (SPCM):  The limited “real” court-martial.  Like a General Court-Martial (GCM), the Special Court-Martial (SPCM) is a full federal criminal trial, able to adjudge a range of punishments for convictions that are permanent and federally-recorded.  However, unlike a GCM, the SPCM has a 1-year limit on the time it may place a servicemember in prison; convictions resulting from a SPCM may not trigger the same kinds of follow-on consequences.  For that reason, many consider the SPCM to be a “misdemeanor-equivalent” court, although the legal categorization of each court-martial result is unique and will depend on the assessment by any given state court reviewing it.  The UCMJ trades these procedural limitations for expedited handling; a SPCM may occur without first requiring an Article 32 preliminary hearing and may, in some circumstances, happen without a jury, leaving the case totally in the hands of a military trial judge.
  • Summary Court-Martial (SCM):  The Summary Court-Martial (SCM) is a court-martial in name only.  While it draws its authority from the UCMJ and the Manual for Courts-Martial, it is an entirely different animal.  There is no judge and no jury, and most services do not involve attorneys in this process, which is similar to Nonjudicial Punishment (NJP) under UCMJ Article 15.  These differences make the SCM a tool preferred in forward combat areas, quickly allowing for harsher punishments to be enacted than would be through the NJP (Article 15) process.  The reduced procedural rights of a SCM are offset by two key advantages for those facing a court-martial: convictions at a SCM are not recorded outside the military, and in many instances, servicemembers may elect to reject or “turn down” the SCM and demand a full criminal trial by SPCM or GCM.

The Long Road of the Court-Martial Process

The court-martial unfolds through a complex process, military protocol and legal procedure.  Charges are not simply “charged” as they might be in civilian court, but “preferred” which alerts the servicemember that the process has begun.  In many cases, those charges will cross the desks and hands of over a dozen commanders and military attorneys before a decision is made on whether a trial will occur.  In most cases, there will be a preliminary hearing conducted to Article 32 of the UCMJ, similar in function to a grand jury proceeding.  After that, a final legal review under UCMJ Article 34 will precede the “Referral” decision on whether or not to “refer” or send the case to a court-martial (and which type of court-martial: SCM, SPCM, and GCM).  It’s a structured journey, demanding precision at every step.  In any case, there may be opportunities to enhance the legal defense or even resolve the case, but seeing and exploiting those opportunities requires the knowledge, experience, and skill we provide.

Commanders and Courts-Martial: Who’s in Charge?

For 70 years, the American court-martial system was “owned” by unit commanders and commanding generals and admirals, aided by a supporting network of military government attorneys known as judge advocates or “JAGs.”  Beginning in January 2024, that equation became even more complex.  For some offenses identified by Congress, a new system of military legal authorities (who are not commanders) have full ownership of the court-martial referral and litigation process.  Similar to a District Attorney or Attorney General offices in some states or U.S. Attorney offices in the federal system, these authorities exercise unprecedented power over military personnel accused of crimes.  For all other offenses, the traditional system of command and legal processing is used.  The reality of this new split system means that navigating the process is exponentially more complex than ever before, and expert assistance is absolutely essential to securing a favorable result.

Strategic Defense against Seemingly Insurmountable Odds

Courts-martial are not fought in a day or even a week; they are not won in any single moment.  They are a long, hard fight against a foe that has every odd stacked against you.  While the population of the U.S. military makes it similar in size to a major U.S. city, the number of courts-martial tried is less than 2,000 a year—just 1/100th of that in a civilian equivalent jurisdiction. The military judicial system is unique in that it has the most favorable resource allocation of any legal jurisdiction.  Through federal funding, trained military prosecutors are given a great amount of resources (both financially and professionally).  Additionally, they are not burdened by elections or by public sentiment regarding dollars spent pursuing their goal.  They are resource rich, determined and tenacious.  To win this fight, the only answer is to know, understand, and own the system and turn it and use to your advantage.  Any attorney can show up in a court-martial, but only a military legal expert can get you the results you need.

Mangan Law: Your Allies in Military Justice

When facing a court-martial, you need more than just a lawyer, you need a warrior who understands the operational and strategic battlefield of military law.  Choosing Mangan Law for your legal defense means bringing in an unmatched level and range of experience, backed by an ethos of true service and dedication.  Plenty of attorneys can claim to have tried a court-martial before.  Few alive can match Sean Mangan’s experience; he has prosecuted and defended the full range of charges and cases.  He has litigated courts-martial for EVERY branch of the armed forces.  As former full-time faculty at the military’s only ABA-Accredited law school, he has taught and trained attorneys and even military judges of all services.  He has successfully appealed convictions and can anticipate and see beyond each step of the trial process.  Finally, as a former military trial judge, he has presided over all manner of cases and knows the secrets to the system.  For a defense that turns the tables on a seemingly unbeatable system, trust Mangan Law.  Reach out now at 360-908-2203 to experience an unparalleled legal defense.  We are ready to “Defend Your Service”.

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