Generally, in the United States, military law is a body of law that oversees the members of the armed forces. Essentially, the usage of military law on the members of the armed forces was a recognition that military individuals are subjected to different rules and expectations than ordinary civilian citizens. Military law functions as a system of government for military members. It should be noted that military law is different from martial law.
The military legal system is codified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) (10 U.S.C. Ch. 47). which is applied to all branches of the military. All members of the armed forces, including but not limited to activated reservists, active duty personnel, guard members, and even retired members of the military, are subject to the UCMJ. Thus, even if a member of the armed forces commits a criminal act unrelated to military matters, they are still subjected to the UCMJ in addition to civilian penalties and will be accordingly disciplined. Generally, punishments for violating any of the rules of the UCMJ vary from a loss of privileges to confinement and discharge.
Hence, all members within the scope of the military fall under the jurisdiction of military law regardless of whether they are actually in service or not.
The UCMJ covers offenses specific to military officials such as high crimes and misdemeanors, perjury of oath, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, etc. and also covers ordinary civilian crimes, but has a different standard of proof than civilian courts and a different set of punishments.
The origins of military law are directly from the United States Constitution itself which authorized the establishment of a justice system within the military. Specifically, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress to power to “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.” Then in 1806, Congress issued a new set of rules known as the Articles of War. Later, during the American Civil War, the 1863 Lieber Code governed military justice. Finally, in 1951 in the aftermath of World War II, Congress superseded the Articles of War and the Lieber Code with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Thus, the UCMJ is indeed federal law and is located in Title 10 United States Code Chapter 47.
When a military member commits an offense, the member’s immediate commander is usually responsible for how the offense should be charged. For more serious offenses, the military or security police investigators have authority to investigate and charge while criminal investigative agencies handle the most serious offenses. A commander has the option to take no action, take administrative action, use nonjudicial punishment, or try the offender by court-martial. Judge advocates usually prosecute and defend the accused.. The UCMJ governs courts-martial while the Manual for Courts-Martial, which is an executive order from the President of the United States acting as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, expands the UCMJ with directions for courts-martial. A court-martial conviction can be appealed through the military courts and the United States Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces (USCAAF). The USCAAF is a federal appellate court that is made up of five civilian judges that the President appoints. Decisions from the CAAF can be subjected to direct review by the United States Supreme Court.
U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes
- U.S. Code:
- 10 U.S.C. - Armed Forces
- 18 U.S.C. § 1024 - Purchase or Receipt of Military, Naval, or Veteran's Facilities Property
- 32 U.S.C. - National Guard
- 37 U.S.C. - Pay and Allowances of the Uniformed Services
- 38 U.S.C. - Veterans' Benefits
- 50 U.S.C. - War and National Defense
- Uniform Code of Military Justice
- CRS Annotated Constitution
- Title 38 C.F.R.
Federal Judicial Decisions
- U.S. Supreme Court:
- Recent Military Law Decisions
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces: Recent Military Law Decisions
CRS Annotated Constitution: Article I: Care of the Armed Forces
- Joint Chiefs of Staff
- U.S. Air Force
- U.S. Army
- U.S. Coast Guard
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Marine Corps
- U.S. Space Force
- National Guard
- Air Force Reserve
- Army Reserve
- Combatant Commands
- Category: Group Rights
- Category: Individual Rights
- Category: Governmental Organization, Power, and Procedure
[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]