The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)

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A gavel rests on a judge's desk.
A gavel rests on the judge’s bench in the courtroom of the 39th Air Base Wing legal office at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Nov. 14, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Joshua Magbanua/U.S. Air Force)

Members of the military are subject to many rules, regulations and laws. Besides having to obey the laws of the United States and their host countries in times of peace under international treaties, they are also subject to a special set of laws made just for them, the Uniform Code of Military Justice or UCMJ.

The UCMJ is federal law, enacted by Congress which applies to all active duty members as well as activated National Guard and Reserve members and military academy students. Some civilians serving in support of the military during wartime are also subject to the UCMJ.

The UCMJ was enacted in 1951, prior to that each service had their own set of legal regulations which changed during peacetime and wartime. The UCMJ was developed to make the legal system uniform across all services.

Congress created the UCMJ and periodically makes changes to it through legislation, usually as part of the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA.

As constitutionally mandated, Congress creates the laws contained in the UCMJ. The president with the constitutional power of the execution and enforcement of those laws creates and maintains the Manual for Courts Martial or MCM, which contains the penalties for breaking any of the laws prescribed by Congress.

If a service member commits an offense that involves the civilian or international community, the military may choose to let civilian authorities handle the case. However, a military member may be tried for the same crime in both a civilian and military court under separate charges.

Related: Military Justice Explained

UCMJ Articles

The UCMJ has various "articles" which enumerate the various legal infractions it covers. For example Article 92 is "Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation" while Article 129 concerns "Burglary." 

To cover all crimes not listed, there is Article 134, the "General Article" which lists as a punishable offense "all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces " - and more.

You can view the UCMJ and MCM online for more details.

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