Military Court vs Civilian Court: What’s The Difference?

What’s the difference between a military court and civilian court? Military law can be difficult to understand. This article aims to simplify the process by explaining the military and civilian court systems. We’ll start with the basics and provide clear information to help you understand the legal process.

gavel and books

What Are the Differences Between Military Court and Civilian Court?

Scope of Military Justice and Jurisdiction

Military trials can be handled in different ways, and where a person needs to appear depends on the severity of the case. A general court-martial handles the most severe violations, essentially, felony-level crimes. A service member can get maximum punishments like life imprisonment, a dishonorable discharge, pay forfeiture, and even the death penalty through a general court-martial.

A special court-martial is for crimes that are less serious than a general court-martial, but still requires a military judge, prosecution, defense counsel, and jury involvement. Maximum penalties may include a year of confinement, pay reduction for six months, or a bad conduct discharge.

A summary court-martial is for minor crimes using simple procedures. Rather than involving a military judge, this process only requires one officer to act as both judge and jury. Among the punishments given in this type of court martial include pay forfeiture, monthly confinement, reduced military rank, and hard labor.

According to the Constitution, a military court has jurisdiction over military members and, in certain cases, retired service members. Meanwhile, civilian courts are authorized to hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes. Civilian courts may hear cases involving service members if they violated civilian law.

An experienced military lawyer would be the ideal ally in military courts. Military defense attorneys understand the Armed Forces’ rules and are updated with the latest rule changes. Military members may employ one for free or get one on their own. Meanwhile, civilian lawyers are required for civilian courts.

civilian court room

Processes and Procedures

A criminal investigative agency, such as the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID), investigates felony or severe felony cases in the military. Meanwhile, military or security police investigators handle minor offenses. According to military law, the accused party’s immediate commanding officer may decide punishment on very minor cases.

Regardless of how severe the case is, the service member’s military commander is involved in every step of the military court process. That commander must exercise discretion when deciding if an offense should be charged and the type of punishment the offender deserves.

The requirements for procedures are unique in a military court-martial. The military justice system follows rules of evidence patterned after the Federal Rules of Evidence. The military judge or members hear the evidence and decide the accused party’s fate. They must be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. If the accused party is convicted, a sentence hearing is held.

The convicted service member is entitled to a review of the trial. The first step is to appeal the verdict through a study by the convening authority. Next is the appellate process, which involves the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.


A critical difference between military and civilian courts is how the verdict is decided. In civilian criminal trials, the jury members must vote unanimously for punishment. When it comes to military courts, a split verdict is possible. This happens when 3/4 of the majority vote on a penalty or punishment.

The Appeals Process in Military Law

In civilian courts, appeals are heard through the circuit courts and can be taken as far as the United States Supreme Court. Meanwhile, each military branch has a unique appeal process in the military justice system. The different Courts of Criminal Appeals (CCAs) are:

  • United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (AFCCA)
  • United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA)
  • United States Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals (CGCCA)
  • United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals (ACCA)

The CCAs are authorized to review and act on court-martial records by affirming, reversing, or modifying the findings and sentence in cases. Military appeals are automatic in cases wherein the accused party receives a severe penalty. There are no automatic appeals in civilian courts. In other words, a CCA will automatically review your case if you were prosecuted at a General or Special Court-Martial and received a punitive discharge (dismissal, DD, or BCD) OR at least two years of confinement.

lady of justice, gavel, book and handcuff on desk


Understanding the difference between military and civilian courts is vital for service members undergoing trial.


What is the difference between a military court and a civilian court?

A military court decides over service members and, in some cases, retired veterans. A civilian court may involve service members.

Who is the highest military court?

According to the military justice system, a general court martial is considered the highest military court.

Why is a military justice system important? 

Military justice is enforced to maintain good order and discipline within the Armed Forces. It ensures that the military remains effective.

Does military law supersede civilian law?

No, military law doesn’t replace civilian law. Military members can be tried in both civilian courts and military courts.

Can a civilian be tried in military court?

Yes, a civilian can be tried in a military court but only under certain conditions. Most of the time, military courts only cover service members.

Can civilians testify in military court?

Yes, civilians are often called to testify when needed.

Attorney Roy Kaufmann serves as the Director of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Centralized Verification Service, located in Washington, D.C. As a recognized authority on the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, Mr. Kaufmann has published hundreds of articles and hosted many webinars. His teachings help law firms and businesses to remain compliant with the SCRA rules and regulations so as to avoid costly fines.