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Courts-martial in the United Federation of Planets are criminal trials conducted by Star Fleet. Most commonly, courts-martial are convened to try members of Star Fleet for violations of the Federation Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is Star Fleet's criminal code. However, they can also be convened for other purposes, including military tribunals and the enforcement of martial law in an occupied territory. Courts-martial are governed by the rules of procedure and evidence laid out in the Federation Manual for Courts-Martial and Military Rules of Evidence, respectively.

Courts-martial are adversarial proceedings, as are all Federation criminal courts. That is, lawyers representing the government and the accused present the facts, legal aspects, and arguments most favorable to each side; a military judge determines questions of law, and the members of the panel (or military judge in a judge-alone case) determine questions of fact.

Types of Court-martial

There are three types of courts-martial — summary, special, and general. A conviction at a general court-martial is equivalent to a civilian conviction in a federal district court. Special courts-martial are considered "federal misdemeanor courts" because they cannot impose confinement longer than one year. Summary courts-martial have no civilian equivalent.

Summary Court-martial

Trial by summary court-martial provides a simple procedure for resolution of charges of relatively minor misconduct committed by enlisted members of Star Fleet. The summary court-martial consists of one individual, typically a judge advocate. That one officer acts both as prosecuting attorney and defense counsel. The maximum punishment at a summary court-martial varies with the accused's paygrade. If the accused is in the pay grade of E-4 or below, he or she can be sentenced to 30 days of confinement, reduction to pay grade E-1, or restriction for 60 days. Punishments for servicemembers in paygrades E-5 and higher are similar, except that they can only be reduced one paygrade and cannot be confined.

Star Fleet members who refuse Article 15 nonjudicial punishment can be referred for special court-martial. Usually this decision is made after the commanding officer consults with the local JAG commander. The accused must consent to trial by summary court-martial before the court can commence.

Special Court-martial

A special court-martial is the intermediate court level. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel (prosecutor), defense counsel, and a minimum of three officers sitting as a panel of court members or jury. An enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. An accused may also request trial by judge alone. Regardless of the offenses involved, a special court-martial sentence is limited to no more than one year confinement (or a lesser amount if the offenses have a lower maximum), forfeiture of two-third’s basic pay per month for one year, a bad-conduct discharge (for enlisted personnel), and certain lesser punishments. An officer accused in a special court-martial cannot be dismissed from the service or confined.

General Court-martial

In a general court-martial, the maximum punishment is that set for each offense under the Federation Manual for Courts-Martial (FMCM), and may include death (for certain offenses), confinement, a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge for enlisted personnel, a dismissal for officers, or a number of other forms of punishment. Before a case goes to a general court-martial, a pretrial investigation under Article 32 of the Federation Uniform Code of Military Justice must be conducted, unless waived by the accused. An accused before any court-martial is entitled to free legal representation by military defense counsel (ADC-area defense counsel), and can also retain civilian counsel at his or her expense.

There are procedures for post-trial review in every case, although the extent of those appellate rights depends upon the punishment imposed by the court and approved by the convening authority. Cases involving a punitive discharge, dismissal, confinement for one year or more, or death will undergo automatic review by the appropriate court of criminal appeals, unless the accused waives such review (although death sentences cannot be waived). The Court of Criminal Appeals can correct any legal error it may find, and it can reduce an excessive sentence. The accused will be assigned an appellate defense counsel to represent him or her at no cost before the Court. Civilian counsel may be retained at the accused's own expense. Beyond the Court of Criminal Appeals, the accused can petition the Federation Court of Appeals for Star Fleet for further review (review is automatic for death sentences). Appellate defense counsel will also be available to assist the accused at no charge. Again, the accused can also be represented by civilian counsel, but at his or her own expense. Beyond that court, it is possible to petition the Federation Supreme Court to review the case, although such petitions are rarely granted.