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What is Military Law?

Definition of Military Law

Military law is all legal structures that govern military personnel. Topics covered by military cover service members' conduct while in training or on active duty, protections of military spouses, and service members' reentry into civil society when their tours of duty are over.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) governs service members' conduct while in training or on active duty. It lists nearly 60 activities in which service members cannot engage while in the military. If a service member violates one of these provisions, the service member's commanding officer (CO) may decide to punish that soldier or refer her to a court-martial, which she will be tried.

Military personnel who return from their tour of duty must return to civilian life, and the transition can be somewhat difficult. Fortunately, several laws are in place to help. First, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act helps soldiers put their life on hold while away by protecting them against credit card debt, mortgage payments, and pending trials. Next, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) helps service members reintegrate into society by requiring employers to rehire military employees after they return from service under certain circumstances.

Terms to Know

  • Dishonorable Discharge: One of the most severe punishments the military can impose, a dishonorable discharge means that a service member left the military due to misconduct.
  • Court-Martial: The proceeding which adjudicates military law.
  • Non-Judicial Punishment: Punishments a service member's commanding officer may impose in her discretion, including confinement, extra duties, demotion, and reprimands.

Practice Area Notes

Most of the lawyers that practice law stemming from the UCMJ are part of the Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps. Each branch of the military has its own JAG corps. Members of the JAG corps represent the military in many different capacities, including individual representation before courts-martial and representing the military in general in civilian courts.

Related Practice Areas

  • International Law: Many military operations occur overseas and soldiers may at times run afoul of international laws.
  • Criminal Law: Service members commit war crimes. Additionally, some punishable offenses are criminal in nature.
  • Employment Law: Military personnel are employees of the Department of Defense. Additionally, military personnel are entitled to special protections when returning to civil life.
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