Sometimes, a soldier doesn't respect the law and/or his orders; other times, someone under military jurisdiction, such as a civilian living in a zone under anarchy or working for the army, ends on the bad side of the law.
In both cases, they end up court-martialed.
Military courts have a reputation for harshness, and in portrayals of authoritarian states, they are used as a background effect, especially when used against civilians; Hanging Judges can end up serving as judges in these.
In fiction, this is often played as a particularly dark take on the Kangaroo Court.
Historically, a court-martial may not only be held to determine someone's guilt, but also to verify their innocence and officially clear their name. This was a fairly common outcome for Captains who faced court-martial for the loss of their ships. It also wasn't unheard of for a disgraced officer to request a court-martial, in hopes of clearing their name in a court of law. Note that most navies have a standard court-martial which convenes whenever a ship is lost; this does not presume that the captain is suspected of wrongdoing, but merely that the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ship be made part of the official record.
Obviously Truth in Television.
- Subverted in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED: Captain Ramius is called upon by her Chief of Staff to court-martial Kira for disobeying her orders in battle, but she lets him off with a warning after explaining to him why his actions were dangerous and irresponsible. Justified in that he is technically an underage civilian forced by circumstance to pilot mechs for the military — not an enlisted soldier, like Ramius and Badgiruel.
- In the original Ghost in the Shell manga Major Kusanagi is at one point charged with manslaughter in the line of duty after Section 9's antics (specifically her reflexively killing the person they were trying to capture when he snuck up behind her) are caught on film. She skips court before the verdict is read to ferret out what's really going on.
- From Fullmetal Alchemist, Roy Mustang sometimes uses this as a threat for his underlings to follow his order, often for petty reasons. For instance, telling Ed to accept Armstrong as his bodyguard, or Havoc to meet and date Armstrong's sister. The one time it failed tipped him off that something is seriously wrong: someone with higher authority than himself is shutting his subordinate, meaning the top brass is involved.
- In Runaways, this is Xavin's apparent fate; they deliver themselves to the Majesdanian Light Brigade and are taken away to answer for their role in the destruction of Majesdane. Since there is presumably no civilian government left, the trial is likely to be a court-martial.
- In "Shakedown Shenanigans" Captain Kanril mentions in passing that she was court-martialed for the loss of her previous command the USS George Hammond, but she was cleared.
- The Mysterious Case of Neelix's Lungs:
- Captain Stadi tells Crewman Celes that ordinarily she'd be court-martialed for assault and battery of an officer (the Bajoran punched out one of their Cardassian allies for asking her on a date), but given Voyager's situation they don't have access to JAG so Stadi resorts to non-judicial punishment (demotion, loss of privileges, and Punishment Detail).
- In chapter 6's epilogue there's a brief mention that William Riker is facing a court-martial for the loss of the Enterprise in Star Trek: Generations.
- In Origins, a Mass Effect/Star Wars/Borderlands/Halo Massive Multiplayer Crossover, it's repeatedly discussed that by all rights Samantha Shepard should face a court-martial, but due to circumstances and her previous good deeds, she's not.
Films — Animated
- The old rooster in Chicken Run threatens Rocky with this at one point.
Films — Live-Action
- The A-Team shows the team being tried for a disastrous covert operation that resulted in the apparent death of a general, getting convicted, dishonorably discharged, and imprisoned.
- A Few Good Men is a Law Procedural involving two Marines being tried in the death of a third, and assigned a JAG representative (Tom Cruise's character) with a history of pleading out cases. His co-counsel convinces him to go to trial this time.
- In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Admiral Kirk and the others return to Earth to face court-martial for stealing the Enterprise in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. After he saves Earth from the whale probe, most of the charges are dropped, and he's demoted back to captain for the remaining one.
- In Paths of Glory three soldiers are court-martialed for cowardice and disobeying orders after refusing to participate in a suicidal attack. It was going to be 100 men but the general is talked into only charging three, one from each company.
- Happens in the Steel movie, when a seemingly harmless weapon the main character makes Goes Horribly Wrong.
- In The Caine Mutiny, the ship's XO, Lt. Maryk, is court-martialed for mutinying against the ineffectual and tyrannical Captain Queeg.
- In "Sergeant Rutledge" African-American top sergeant Woody Strode is court-martialed in the post Civil War west for raping and murdering his commander's (white) teenage daughter and shooting his commander to death before running away. Ironically he did kill his commander. Rutledge found the girl naked and strangled and he was covering her with a blanket when the commander came in, misinterpreted the situation and fired his revolver. Rutledge had to fire back to save his life and knew no one would believe him. Despite claims to the contrary the court-martial was rife with bigotry.
- In Catch-22, Clevinger ends up on one which had been crossed with a Kangaroo Court on trumped up charges. When Clevinger tries to protest that punishing him would be a violation of justice, the judge goes into a full blown rant.
"That's not what justice is (...) That's what Karl Marx is. I'll tell you what justice is. Justice is a knee in the gut from the floor on the chin at night sneaky with a knife brought up down on the magazine of a battleship sandbagged underhanded in the dark without a word of warning. Garroting. That's what justice is when we've all got to be tough enough and rough enough to fight Billy Petrolle. From the hip. Get it?"
- X-Wing Series: In The Krytos Trap Tycho Celchu is tried for treason and the murder of Corran Horn at the end of Wedge's Gamble. It was partially a covert operation to smoke out The Mole in Rogue Squadron, which Tycho is suspected by some of being, and charges are summarily dropped when Corran turns up in the courtroom very much alive and identifies the real mole.
- Honor Harrington:
- Field of Dishonor opens with the court-martial of Captain Lord Pavel Young for disobeying direct orders and cowardice in the face of the enemy, among several other counts incurred during the Battle of Hancock in The Short Victorious War. Due to random "luck of the draw" when a computer selects the court martial board, half of the admirals on the panel judging the trial are in thrall to Young's father, Earl North Hollow, whether due to personal politics or blackmail. This results in Young being found guilty on four of six counts but with no agreement on the other two; he's dishonorably discharged but not sentenced to death.
- The same book also features Honor being investigated for misconduct in the same battle. While serving as Flag Captain to Rear Admiral Sarnow, Honor assumed command of the fleet when he was wounded, rather than informing the senior officer present that the Admiral had been incapacitated. Everyone assumed the orders were being sent on Admiral Sarnow's behalf during the battle. Ironically, one of the officers senior to Honor was Captain Young, who was ultimately being court martialed for cowardice and disobeying Captain Harrington's orders to stay in formation (which is weasel-worded as "orders from the flagship"). Ultimately they decide that Honor acted appropriately under the circumstances (they were actively under fire and taking the time to inform Sarnow's next-in-command could have cost them the battle), but Honor is later relieved of command after killing Lord Young in a duel after he hires a contract killer to murder her boyfriend in revenge.
- A full chapter of Echoes of Honor (plus sections of several others) is devoted to the court-martials of State Sec guards on Hades and the efforts the former prisoners are making to keep those court-martials according to the book, instead of a vengeance spree.
- Horatio Hornblower
- Lieutenant Hornblower has a court of inquiry, which investigates whether the full court-martial is needed, over Captain Sawyer's fall down the hatchway and subsequent removal from command. They decide against it in order to cover up Sawyer's insanity.
- Flying Colours ends in one for the loss of the Sutherland at the end of the previous book, as the loss of a ship incurs an automatic court-martial no matter the circumstances. Since he lost his ship by taking out four French ones in a heroic and doomed action, caused France to use manpower and resources looking for him after escaping prison, and recaptured a British ship the French had captured in order to get back to England, the government exonerates him and turns him into a propaganda piece.
- In the Temeraire series, a captain whose dragon is killed is automatically court-martialed in much the same way that naval captains are automatically court-martialed for losing a ship. (In the rare event that they survive, that is. Typically they fall to their deaths with the dragon.) Laurence himself is court-martialed for treason between books four and five for giving the cure for the dragon plague to France and found guilty.
- In the McAuslan series of short stories, the eponymous Private McAuslan, the dirtiest, dimmest and most inept soldier in the British Army, is court-martialed for disobedience. Whilst the workings of a British Army court-martial are held up for inspection and pronounced fair by the author, the accused, unbelievably, is found not guilty.
- The Rats, The Bats, and The Ugly is about Chip's court-martial by their planet's insanely corrupt and incompetent military for what happened in the previous book (Actually winning a battle and sleeping with the richest girl on the planet), and his friends' attempts to help him avoid the firing squad.
- In Sharpe's Tiger, Richard Sharpe is court-martialed after being goaded into striking the malevolent Sergeant Hakeswill. He's sentenced to two thousand lashes, effectively a painful death sentence, but the flogging is interrupted after 200.
- Sharpe faces another court-martial in Sharpe's Honour, when he's falsely accused of murdering a Spanish aristocrat. He's convicted and sentenced to hang for political reasons, but another convict is hanged in his place, leaving him free to clear his name.
- In Sirantha Jax: Aftermath Jax faces a court-martial for changing the codes on the beacons that guide ships through grimspace, which, while it saved humanity by causing the Morgut invasion fleet intent on eating humanity to be lost in space, also caused at least 600 friendly deaths. She's acquitted, but accepts early retirement afterwards and gives her attorney orders to settle any wrongful death suits.
- Starship Troopers:
- Ted Hendryck is sentenced to flogging before getting a dishonorable discharge for assaulting Sergeant Zim during training. It is made clear that this particular punishment is not so much for his actual offense, but because he made the attack get noticed. Assaulting Zim as he did actually carried a penalty of death, and since none of his superiors wanted to kill him they all made a deliberate point of not mentioning the attack or asking about the injuries. However, Ted is so emphatic about justifying his actions that he blurts it out in front of the captain without considering the repercussions, which makes it official and unable to be ignored. To avoid the death penalty, they convene a summary court martial (intended for minor issues) which is not allowed to pass a death sentence, and save his life that way.
- The hero, Juan Rico, is sentenced to a flogging for fucking up during training - though, as, contrarily to Hendryck, he is deemed recuperable and given these blows as an administrative punishment, designed to disappear from his record.
- The Federation forces have "thirty-one ways to crash land", that is, thirty-one military capital felonies, including assault on an officer during emergency or wartime.
- Ciaphas Cain:
- In For the Emperor Cain presides over the trials of six Guardsmen from the Valhallan 296th and 301st who had been involved in a Bar Brawl that resulted in the deaths of several Guardsmen and Imperial Navy personnel. The penalty is death, but for morale reasons Cain uses his authority as regimental commissar to commute the sentences to service in a penal legion (or fodder for a Suicide Mission, whichever comes first). He then deals with the root of the problem by re-founding the two amalgamated half-strength regiments as one unit, the Valhallan 597th.
- The Traitor's Hand wraps up with Cain facing a Commissariat tribunal, basically a court-martial by a different name. The tribunal pretty quickly dismisses the charges against him, and then charges his accuser with gross incompetence for getting in Cain's way and nearly dooming the planet.
- The titular character of John Hemry's Paul Sinclair series finds himself uncomfortably often in court martials, one in each book, both as a witness and as an observer under his duties as the Legal Officer of the USS Michaelson.
- In the first book, A Just Determination, Captain Wakeman is put on trial for destroying a civilian vessel, and ultimately found guilty. The convictions aren't as severe as they could have been, however, thanks to Sinclair's testimony for the defense.
- Burden of Proof has him working with the prosecution when a new officer is court-martialed for events that lead to the death of a crewer.
- In Rule of Evidence, Sinclair's girlfriend, serving on the USS Maury, is blamed for an explosion that guts her ship. She's almost convicted of the crimes she was charged with, but is saved at the last moment by evidence of corporate malfeasance that were the actual cause of the explosion.
- Sinclair has a more direct involvement in the court martial of a newly arrived Lieutenant in Against All Enemies, who's indirectly responsible for the deaths of many civilians after leaking classified information to a rival country, working with NCIS to provide evidence of espionage.
- In Billy Budd the trial of the eponymous sailor is central to the plot.
- In the fourth Ark Royal novel, Warspite, Captain John Naiser holds a Captain's Mast (similar, but at sea, or in space as it were) for two engineers accused of selling replacement power conduits on the black market, falsifying documents to make it look like they'd been used properly, and injuries to nine crewmen when the parts they were supposed to replace failed and the whole ship lost power. They get confessions with a lie detector and Truth Serums. The senior crewman is sentenced to death, which would have been by hanging but he requested death by airlock; while his partner had been blackmailed by him so she was given a choice between ten years in the second hardest prison in the solar system, or indenture on the colony they'd been deployed to establish on a Titan-like world. She chose the colony.
- In Alexis Carew: Mutineer, Alexis and the enlisted crew of HMS Hermione are tried for mutiny in a Kangaroo Court: to wit, the tribunal believes the captain and the other officers over Alexis and the enlisted men, and her JAG is more interested in making the Navy look good than in providing a vigorous defense. Fortunately, the Hanoverese captain who held them all as prisoners of war flies in under flag of truce and hands over Hermione's log, which shows the extenuating circumstances behind the mutiny: Captain Neals was flogging the men for the tiniest of offenses and disrated Alexis, a midshipman, for refusing to beg forgiveness for them on bended knee. Alexis is cleared and restored to her former rank (and then uses the video as blackmail to get the court to acquit the enlisted men), and Neals is suspended for psychiatric reasons with a promise he'll be Reassigned to Antarctica and never given another ship.
- As is expected by the title and premise, many episodes of JAG involved court-martials for reasons varying from minor mistakes (that in order to up the drama led to (or nearly led to) major disasters or had their cases led by a Hanging Judge or Kangaroo Court) to dereliction of duty to possible espionage.
- Blackadder ends up judged by General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. He's completely ready to have Blackadder shot for shooting his prize pigeon: though Blackadder is supposed on trial for disobeying orders Melchett barely mentions them. He fines the defense 50 pounds for turning up and refers to Blackadder as 'the Flanders Pigeon Murderer'. Reality Ensues when one of George's relatives in His Majesty's Government reviews the case and has Blackadder's conviction thrown out because of the unfair trial. Also doubles as a Kangaroo Court, of course, since Melchett was not only the alleged victim, but the presiding judge.
- One episode of The Good Wife has Lockhart-Gardner defending an Army veteran accused in the murder of his wife. They'd gotten him acquitted in Chicago's civilian court but he was then charged under military law, which doesn't count as double jeopardy due to being a separate legal system. Among other wrinkles, Will's team has to explain away the defendant having packed a suitcase to leave the country without stating his real reason, that he was planning to go AWOL rather than serve another tour in the Middle East.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- As stated in "The Measure of a Man" Jean-Luc Picard faced a general court-martial for the loss of his previous command, the USS Stargazer, but was cleared.
- In "The Drumhead", an enlisted man in the Enterprise's sickbay is accused of being a Romulan spy during an investigation of an explosion on the ship (he lied on his paperwork that he was a quarter Vulcan instead of a quarter Romulan). The explosion turns out to be due to a manufacturing defect, Picard calls out the investigator for mounting a Witch Hunt, and the case is dismissed.
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- In "The Menagerie", Spock gets put on trial for commandeering the Enterprise and taking it to a forbidden planet.
- "Court Martial": Kirk gets put on trial for (seemingly) causing the death of a crew member through negligence.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Rules of Engagement" Worf faces a extradition hearing for destroying a Klingon civilian transport that decloaked in front of him in mid-battle. The Klingons somehow get the presiding admiral to let the case be decided by Klingon law, but he's cleared after it turns out to have been a Klingon frame-up to begin with.
- The second episode of Star Trek: Discovery ends with Commander Burnham, the (former) First Officer of the starship Shenzhou, being court-martialed for mutiny and assaulting Captain Georgiou. She pleads guilty and is sent to prison — until her fortunes change six months later.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- The second series of Horatio Hornblower telefilms takes the court of inquiry from Lieutenant Hornblower and turns it into a full-blown court-martial, with one Hanging Judge determined to bring down Hornblower, another judge relatively neutral in the matter, and the third judge being his old commander, Captain Pellew. Testimony takes the form of flashbacks. It ends with Kennedy, who is dying of a gut wound anyway, confessing that he pushed Captain Sawyer down the hold just as the judges are about to ask Hornblower if he did it. As with Lieutenant Hornblower, the truth is that the only living man who knows for sure what happened by the end of the story is Hornblower, and even the audience never learns what really happened.
- In the Rumpole of the Bailey episode "Rumpole and the Bright Seraphim", Rumpole is asked to defend a soldier in a court-martial and has some difficulty with the differences from the civilian courts he's used to operating in.
- "The Novocaine Mutiny": Pierce is on the receiving end of a trial instigated by Burns. The events of Burns' short tenure as a Commanding Officer are discussed making use of flashbacks. Burns' embellished version ultimately charges Pierce with mutiny. After hearing both sides, the court finds Pierce not guilty and otherwise preserves the status quo.
- In "Snap Judgement", the 4077 suffers from elusive thieves and a Polaroid camera goes missing. Continuing in "Snappier Judgment," Klinger, who bought the camera back from black market peddlers, because he couldn't explain possessing it or why he delayed reporting it stolen, is arrested by military police and court-martialed for the theft instead. Winchester volunteers to be his legal counsel, while Hawkeye and BJ set out to catch the culprit. Because of Winchester's ineptitude in law and the unfortunate circumstances, Klinger is just about to be convicted when the real thief is brought into the court, absolving Klinger of the charges.
- In the Community episode "G.I.Jeff", Jeff dreams that he and the study group members are members of G.I. Joe. He gets court-martialed for killing Destro, which is against the Joe team's rules for some reason.
- In an episode of Matlock Ben is appointed as a defense attorney for a soldier undergoing a court-martial. He has to be repeatedly reminded that the Judge is called "Sir" not "your honor."
- In Band of Brothers, Cpt. Sobel threatens Lt. Winters with a court-martial, his real intention being to simply punish Winters for personal jealousies. Winters calls Sobel's bluff by endorsing the court-martial, which is for a ticky-tack infraction he know won't hold up. Sobel is dismayed, as he knows this will only undermine his authority further.
- In the Doctor Who serial "The War Games", the Doctor and his companions land in what appears to be World War I. They are tried by a supposedly fair court-martial and found guilty of espionage.
- In Enemy at the Door, set in German-occupied territory during World War II, this is a recurring hazard not only for the German characters (as in the episode "After the Ball", which features the court-martial of a German soldier accused of sexually assaulting a local) but also for any civilian who transgresses against the German military rule (as in the episode "The Librarian", in which the title character is brought before the German military court after clashing with German soldiers tasked with searching the library and confiscating any books banned by the German authorities).
- Monty Python's Flying Circus had a sketch where a British soldier in World War II was court-martialed for "carrying on the war in other than warlike means", i.e. dressing up as a bag of dainties and flicking wet towels at the enemy. Strangely enough, the tactic seems to have worked, as the soldier survived long enough to be brought to trial.
- Mass Effect:
- Mass Effect 2: Tali, The Engineer on your crew, is recalled to the Quarian Migrant Fleet and put on trial for treason. There are no dedicated military lawyers or military judges - the admiralty board acts as judges, while Tali's ship's captain - the Player Character in this case - is her defense counsel. This actually resembles how Courts Martial used to be done in the US armed forces before military legal jurisdiction was established by the UCMJ. It also resembles an "Admirals' Mast" which is like a Captain's Mast in navies, except only for senior officers.
- At the start of Mass Effect 3 Shepard is in house arrest awaiting trial for the destruction of a batarian colony in Mass Effect 2's "Arrival" DLC (or for working with the human-supremacist terrorist group Cerberus to stop the Collectors; the charges are never stated directly but it had to do with one or both of those). The charges are dropped when the Reapers turn up and Shepard is needed to help fight them.
- At the beginning of Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier, Roger Wilco is court-martialed for his actions at the end of the previous game. The only reason the StarCon Federation keeps him around (in his usual role as a janitor) is that he managed to rescue the crew of the SCS Goliath and returned his garbage scow the SCS Eureka intact. (Well, those, and the fact that he's a real good cleaner.)
- In Battle Zone 1998, if you ignore an order for too long, General Collins will transfer command to another officer and boot you to the mission failed screen in a Nonstandard Game Over. On Mars, he explicitly orders you to not attack a heavily defended Soviet base. If you disobey his orders and succeed, he'll say he won't court martial you, but threatens to abandon you on some godforsaken dirt ball if you do it again.
- The Simpsons: In "Simpson Tide" when Homer joins the Navy Reserves, gets put in charge of a sub and sails to Russia, after he gets stopped he is court-martialed. But all of his judges admit to other crimes (or at least investigations) so they're not currently qualified to judge him.
- In the Futurama episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before", Zapp Brannigan court-martials the Planet Express crew for entering the Forbidden Zone, a direct parody of the Star Trek episode "The Menagerie" mentioned above. At the end of the episode it is revealed that the trial had been taken place in the middle of battle with the Villain of the Week.
- The court martial and execution of Admiral John Byng in 1757 for non-adherence to the Fighting Instructions remains controversial to this day. As Voltaire commented in Candide, he was executed pour encourager les autres.
- The court martials of French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, which convicted him of spying for Germany did not show the system of French military justice in a good light, as Dreyfus was not given a fair trial, evidence was falsified, and influential people in high command tried to shield the real culprit (who eventually fled to Britain). The whole affair deeply divided French society and politics, particularly because Dreyfus turned out to be scapegoated as he was Jewish, and vicious antisemitism underlaid the campaign against him.
- During The Napoleonic Wars two French court-martials gave the impression that they would unquestionably deliver the death sentences Napoleon wanted: that of the Duke of Enghien for alleged complicity in an attempt to assassinate Napoleon (1804) and that of the publisher Johann Philipp Palm for not revealing the name of the author of an anti-Napoleonic pamphlet (1806).
- Mata Hari ended up in one for spying, was convicted, and sentenced to be shot by firing squad.
- During World War II, German military tribunals gained notoriety for their part in the summary executions of all kinds of people like partisans, deserters and plunderers. It got worse near the end when roaming bands of fanatical SS troops would dole out executions for "cowardice" for anyone, military or civilian, who expressed even a desire to surrender.
- Courts martial in the United States have come into scrutiny in recent years owing to a particular quirk in American military law. Every court martial has a designated convening authority usually in the form of general or admiral in command of the large unit to which the accused is assigned. This convening authority has the authority to completely negate any conviction handed down by a trial s/he convened if s/he feels that doing so serves a greater military need. However, convening authority's ability to toss aside convictions has become a controversy in recent times due to convictions for sexual harassment being set aside. And let's leave it at that.
- James Richard Dacres of the Royal Navy was court-martialed for the 1812 loss of his ship, HMS Guerriere, to the USS Constitution. His defense was that the ship was originally French-built, and so not as sturdy as British ships, and was in need of a refit. This was a likely reason for the damage that they took early in the engagement. Satisfied that his crew had done their utsmost, the court acquitted Dacres.