The Uniform Code of Military Justice, passed by Congress in 1951, is the statutory foundation for our modern military court system. Along with the Manual for Courts-Martial—the President’s executive order that provides instruction for properly implementing the requirements of the UCMJ—the UCMJ provides the framework for our current military court system.
The Military Court System at the Trial Level
Military justice is defined by its unique military court system. The military court system exists as an independent judiciary within the wider military structure. At the lowest level are the trial courts, which are governed by the Manual for Courts-Martial. The Manual for Courts-Martial provides the trial courts with their rules of procedure, their rules of evidence—which are very similar to the civilian federal rules of evidence—and their punitive articles.
The Service Courts of Criminal Appeals
The Service Courts of Criminal Appeals provide appellate review of the decisions of the trial court. Every branch of service—except for the Marine Corps, which is overseen by the Naval Court of Criminal Appeals—has its own court of criminal appeals.
The Service Courts of Criminal Appeals automatically review every court-martial in which the convicted receives a punitive discharge—that is, a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge—or more than one year of confinement. Cases that do not meet the requirements for automatic review may nevertheless be submitted for review at the discreation of the Judge Advocate General of the applicable service branch.
The judges that serve on the Service Courts of Criminal Appeals are judge advocates appointed by the Judge Advocate General of their respective service branch. These judges conduct their review like any other appellate court, except that they have the extra power to look at a case for both factual and legal sufficiency.
This is a characteristic unique to the military court system in that the appellate judges must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is in fact guilty, not merely that the lower court did not commit a legal error. If the judges do not believe the convicted individual to be guilty, they can overturn the lower court’s findings. This provides service members with a greater level of protection, as most civilian appellate courts must limit their review to legal matters.
United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
Above the Service Courts of Criminal Appeals is the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, or CAAF, which hears appeals from all branches of the military. This court consists of five civilian judges appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for fifteen year terms. While at one time retired military personnel could not serve as judges on this court, they are now eligible seven years after their retirement date.
CAAF functions as a normal court of last resort and essentially serves as the military’s version of the United States Supreme Court. Like the Supreme Court, the CAAF has discretionary review authority, meaning that, with some exceptions, they can choose which cases they want to hear.
On very rare occasions, however, the United States Supreme Court will review the decisions of CAAF. Since the Supreme Court accepts very few cases submitted to it and cases appealed from CAAF have already been reviewed by two appellate courts, Supreme Court review of CAAF decisions occurs quite infrequently.
The likelihood of a military case reaching the Supreme Court is further reduced by the limited number of cases that CAAF accepts. Since the Supreme Court can only review decisions of CAAF—not the decisions of the Service Courts of Criminal Appeals—if CAAF choose not to hear a case, the convicted service member is generally precluded from even requesting a Supreme Court review.
In the rare cases in which the Supreme Court does grant certiorari from the findings of the CAAF, the Solicitor General of the United States, who generally represents the government in matters before the Supreme Court, argues on behalf of the Department of Defense.
This is a very simple overview of the military court system and its unique characteristics. While the military court system has novel traits and procedures, it generally reflects the typical structure of the civilian courts to which we are all accustomed.