Can the public attend a court martial?

A court martial, also referred to as an Article 32 proceeding under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), is almost always open for the public to attend. Some aspects of courts martial are also governed by Constitutional prerogative, which may allow press coverage of trials. Article 32 proceedings are also reported by Department of Defense (DOD) media, which allows the public to keep up with or track court martial proceedings on the DOD website, or the website for the branch of the military conducting the trial.

Military courts of appeal have noted that the right to a public court martial hearing is not absolute, and a court may, on occassion and with good reason, close the court martial. If a trial involves sensitive material involving national security, or material the military court deems is not appropriate for public, then a court martial may be closed; it is not easy to close a military court martial to the public, however. Although concerns may exist about disclosing security secrets, a military court must also:

  • (a) worry about whether or not the deterrent effect of a trial is lost if the public is excluded;
  • (b) acknowledge the fact that the public has an absolute right to know about military justice; and
  • (c) be determined to maintain justice in a consistent, even civilian, manner as non-military courts do. 

As a result of these concerns, there must be a compelling reason to close all of an Article 32 hearing, in any phase. If there is to be a public closure in any form, that closure may be limited only to the evidence that presents any security concerns or other risks that the public should not know about. In order to close any part of a court martial, military courts will make a decision based on a case-by-case, witness-by-witness, and circumstance-by-circumstance basis. Consult an experienced military justice attorney with specific questions about whether or not a particular court martial proceeding should be closed, in whole or in part, to the public.