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Military Justice in the United States

Under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Congress is given authority to “make rules for the government and regulation of land and naval forces.” The first code of military justice was enacted in 1806, known as the Articles of War. All members of the American Armed Forces are now governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the UCMJ), passed by Congress in 1951.

The Scope of the UCMJ

The UCMJ is essentially a codification of the criminal offenses that may be perpetrated by a member of the U.S. armed forces. The code includes:

  • High crimes and misdemeanors—perjury, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, dereliction of duty, failure to supervise, conduct unbecoming of an officer, and refusal to obey a lawful order
  • Ordinary crimes—larceny, robbery, fraud, sexual offenses, assault
  • Offenses involving non-judicial punishment—Article 15 of the UCMJ addresses minor breaches of discipline. Typically, the commander of a unit will hear evidence regarding the imposition of sanctions under Article 15, but the matter will not be heard by a military tribunal. Penalties include reprimands, extra duty, loss of pay, loss of rank and restriction/loss of privileges.

The military courts are referred to as courts-martial, and conviction in a military court is referred to as a court-martial conviction. Such a conviction may be appealed through the military court system, including an appeal to the Unites States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the United States Supreme Court. Depending on the offense, a court-martial conviction may result in incarceration, discharge under less than honorable circumstances, dishonorable discharge, dismissal of an officer, or even a death sentence.

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