The military separates courts martial into three categories depending on the severity of the crime: Summary, special and general. Each type has procedural differences and vary in length. Here’s a breakdown of all three.
Summary court martial
A summary court martial is the lowest of the three categories, meant for minor offences and is usually brief.
These hearings are presided over by one commissioned officer, with a rank of captain or higher. No judge, no jury. The accused has few rights in these hearings, but the punishments are relatively mild. You don’t get a lawyer, unless you hire a civilian attorney at your own expense.
A commander may choose a summary court martial to quickly deal with someone who is a consistent problem. This person typically hasn’t done something serious enough to warrant a much longer special court martial, which can last months. Meanwhile, the individual is still on duty, occupying space that could be filled by a more amenable service member.
Punishments include confinement (one month or less), hard labor, restriction, a 2/3 pay forfeiture (one month or less) and a reduction in rank.
Special court martial
A special court martial is the next level up, usually dealing with misdemeanor-level crimes, such as desertion, insubordination, assaulting a superior officer and AWOL. The military will assign a defense lawyer to you or you can hire a civilian lawyer at your own expense.
This is more like a standard court hearing, with a judge, a panel of officers and lawyers. These proceedings can last three to six months.
Punishments include confinement (up to one year), 2/3 pay forfeiture for up to one year and a bad-conduct discharge.
General court martial
This is the most serious level. These hearings are for felony-level offences, such as larceny, arson and manslaughter. Proceedings can last from six months to a year.
Punishments include confinement, demotion, restrictions, dishonorable discharge, and even death.
If you are facing a court martial charge, it’s in your best interest to hire an experienced attorney dedicated to your defense. Military lawyers are perfectly competent, but they can be stretched thin, and you want someone who is focused on your defense. Better still, if you choose, the military attorney can stay on to help your hired attorney for an even more potent defense.