It Falls to the Officers to Make Tough Calls Over Whether Allegations Warrant a Court Martial Trial
Military courts, unlike civilian courts, do not have a permanent criminal court system in place to manage the trials and convictions of service members. Rather, military courts are convened for temporary use by ranking officers when the need arises. When a ranking officer convenes a court-martial, he or she becomes a Convening Authority, an individual tasked by Congress under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to investigate criminal accusations and rule on whether those allegations are severe enough to warrant a court martial. If the convening authority concludes that the allegations do not warrant a court martial, he or she may still suggest other forms of punishment, such as a Non-Judicial Punishment, or NJP.
Not All Convening Authorities Are Created Equal
As a convening authority, an officer is empowered to issue “convening orders,” which allow him or her to authorize different designations of court-martial: general courts-martial, special courts-martial, and summary courts-martial. Convening authorities are not all created equal and not all officers can establish every type of court-martial. The higher an officer’s rank, the more authority he or she possesses as a convening authority. Only the highest-ranking officials may establish a general court-martial, whereas convening authorities with officer ranks of 0-6 may be tasked with establishing special or summary courts-martial.
Who Can Convene a General Courts-Martial?
Officers with the power to convene a general court-martial are known as general court-martial convening authorities. Often, this official will be the most senior-level officer of a military installation. According to the UCMJ, these officers are entitled to act as convening authorities for a general court-martial:
- The commanding officer of a unified or specified combatant command or the secretary concerned.
- The commanding officer of an Army Group, an Army, an Army Corps, a division, a separate brigade, or a corresponding unit of the Army or Marine Corps;
- The commander in chief of a fleet; the commanding officer of a naval station or larger shore activity of the Navy beyond the United States
- The commanding officer of an air command, an air force, an air division, or a separate wing of the Air Force or Marine Corps
- In addition to these individuals, both the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense may also summon a general court-martial.
Who Can Convene a Special Courts-Martial?
Officers with the power to convene a special court-martial are known as special court-martial convening authorities. These are 0-6 level commanders, although any officer who can convene a general court-martial may also convene a special court-martial. According to the UCMJ, these officers are entitled to act as convening authorities for a special court-martial:
- COs of a district, garrison, fort, camp, station, Air Force base, auxiliary air field, or other place where members of the Army or the Air Force are on duty;
- COs of a brigade, regiment, detached battalion, or corresponding unit of the Army;
- COs of a wing, group, or separate squadron of the Air Force;
- COs of any naval or Coast Guard vessel, shipyard, base, or station; COs of any Marine brigade, regiment, detached battalion, or corresponding unit; COs of any Marine barracks, wing, group, separate squadron, station, base, auxiliary air field, or other place where members of the Marine Corps are on duty;
- COs of any separate or detached command or group of detached units of any of the armed forces placed under a single commander for this purpose
Who Can Convene a Summary Courts-Martial?
- Officers with the power to convene a summary court-martial are known as summary court-martial convening authorities. The same ranking officers who can convene a general or special court-martial may also convene a summary court-martial. In addition to these COs, the UCMJ designates the right to convene a summary court-martial to:
- COs of detached companies or other detachments of the Army
- COs of detached squadrons or other detachments of the Air Force
- COs or officers in charge of any other command when empowered by the Secretary concerned.
Frequently Asked Questions about Military Convening Authorities
What if there’s more than one CO at a base who can act as a convening authority?
While few individuals have the authority to convene a general court-martial, the same cannot be said of special and summary courts-martial, of which there may be many such individuals operating at a military base. In most cases, the commanding officer of the accused service member will determine whether the case goes to court-martial, or whether another form of punishment, such as an NJP, is a more fitting solution.
What other duties are convening authorities responsible for?
The commanding officer operating as a convening authority may be tasked with any number of responsibilities, such as arresting and confining the accused, authorizing searches and seizures, and prosecuting cases, within certain limits. In prosecuting cases, a convening authority may utilize non-punitive measure, non-judicial punishments, or refer the case to court-martial.
Where can I find information in the UCMJ about convening authorities?
Subchapter V under the UCMJ defines who may convene a general, special, or summary courts-martial.
- § 822 -Article 22: relates to convening authorities for general courts-martial
- § 823 -Article 23: relates to convening authorities for special courts-martial
- § 824 -Article 24: relates to convening authorities for summary courts-martial