FIRST PRINCIPLESJurisdiction: Of Trial Court

2019 (October Term)

United States v. Hennis, 79 M.J. 370 (when challenged at trial, the prosecution must prove jurisdiction by a preponderance of evidence). 

2008 (Transition)

United States v. Adams, 66 M.J. 255 (jurisdictional error occurs when a court-martial is not constituted in accordance with the UCMJ; jurisdiction depends upon a properly convened court, composed of qualified members chosen by a proper convening authority, and with charges properly referred). 


(a court-martial composed of members who are barred from participating by operation of law, or who were never detailed by the convening authority, is improperly constituted and the findings must be set aside as invalid). 


(administrative errors in the drafting of a convening order are not necessarily fatal to jurisdiction, and may be tested for prejudice under Article 59(a), UCMJ).


(the convening authority’s failure to transfer members named in previous special convening orders to the final special order convening appellant’s court-martial was administrative error, rather than jurisdictional error, that did not materially prejudice the substantial rights of appellant, where none of the members who participated in the court-martial was an interloper, where each member was selected by the convening authority to consider the charges against appellant, where there was no evidence that the convening authority excused any of the members who sat on appellant’s court-martial, where there was also no evidence that the convening authority withdrew the charges in order to refer them to a new court-martial, and more important, where the record reflects that the members named in final special order were selected to bring the court-martial up to quorum and were not selected to serve as a separately constituted court-martial). 


United States v. Harmon, 63 M.J. 98 (jurisdiction is the power of a court to try and determine a case and to render a valid judgment; generally, there are three prerequisites that must be met for courts-martial jurisdiction to vest:  (1) jurisdiction over the offense, (2) personal jurisdiction over the accused, and (3) a properly convened and composed court-martial).



United States v. Henderson, 59 MJ 350 (Article 19, UCMJ, provides that special courts-martial have jurisdiction to try persons for any noncapital offense, and, under such regulations as the President may prescribe, for capital offenses; R.C.M. 201(f)(2)(C), a regulation prescribed by the President, withholds jurisdiction over mandatory capital cases from special courts-martial, but does provide for jurisdiction over non-mandatory capital offenses under two circumstances: (1) when permitted by an officer exercising general court-martial jurisdiction over the command which includes the accused; and (2) when authorized by regulation by the Secretary concerned).  


(in United States v. Bancroft, 3 C.M.A. 3, 11 C.M.R. 3 (1953), this Court held that where neither the officer exercising general court-martial jurisdiction over the accused nor the Secretary of the Navy had authorized the referral of a non-mandatory capital offense to trial by special court-martial, the special court-martial lacked jurisdiction to try such an offense, and the findings and sentence on that charge were void; we take this occasion to reaffirm our holding in that case).


(the situation in the present case is strikingly similar to Bancroft; as in Bancroft, the officer making the referral here exercised only special court-martial jurisdiction and referred a capital charge, willfully hazarding a vessel, to a special court-martial without authorization to do so from the officer exercising general court-martial jurisdiction over the accused or the Secretary of the Navy; we therefore find that the court-martial in the present case lacked jurisdiction over the capital charge).


(the case before us involves a challenge to the jurisdiction of a special court-martial to try a non-mandatory capital offense in the absence of authorization from either the officer exercising general court-martial jurisdiction over the accused or from the Secretary of the Navy - - it is not simply a challenge to the “form” of the referral; under the circumstances found in this case, the special court-martial lacked jurisdiction ab initio; when a criminal action is tried before a court which does not have jurisdiction, the entire proceedings are a nullity).


(the primary distinction between this case and Bancroft is that appellant was not convicted of a capital offense but only of a noncapital, lesser-included offense; that distinction, however, does not change the result; because the offense of negligently hazarding a vessel never achieved the status of an independent charge, the court’s jurisdiction over it derived only from the improperly referred capital offense of willfully hazarding a vessel, and thus rises and falls with the jurisdiction over the greater offense; to recognize the pretrial agreement in this case as the functional equivalent of a new referral would require this Court to find jurisdiction where it does not otherwise exist; this we cannot do). 


(appellant’s special court-martial had no jurisdiction to try a capital charge without authorization from either the officer exercising general court-martial jurisdiction over the accused or from the Secretary of the Navy; since the lesser-included charge of negligently hazarding a vessel was never formally referred under R.C.M. 601, it was dependent on the greater charge and was fatally tainted by the lack of jurisdiction).


(jurisdiction over a charge unrelated to a jurisdictionally-defective charge or a lesser-included offense of the unrelated charge remains valid; only the finding and sentence related to the defective charge are a nullity).


United States v. Morgan, 57 MJ 119 (where the record established that the selection of an enlisted forum was appellant’s choice and there were many opportunities to voice an objection to having enlisted members on the panel, the failure to get appellant’s request on the record was a procedural error, not a jurisdictional defect).

United States v. Oliver, 57 MJ 170 (a court-martial requires both in personam and subject matter jurisdiction, in addition to a properly constituted and referred court-martial).

(jurisdiction is an interlocutory issue, to be decided by the military judge, with the burden placed on the Government to prove jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence).


United States v. Williams, 55 MJ 302 (a court-martial retains jurisdiction over a case from the point of referral through authentication of the record by the military judge, except when the convening authority withdraws the charges from the court-martial under RCM 604(a); and unless those charges have been withdrawn for an improper reason, the convening authority may re-refer the withdrawn charges to a different court-martial).



United States v. Townes, 52 MJ 275 (the military judge erred in not obtaining on the record the accused’s personal request for trial by enlisted members; however, on this record, the error was not jurisdictional in that there was sufficient indication by appellant orally and on the record that he personally requested enlisted members).


Home Page |  Opinions & Digest  |  Daily Journal  |  Scheduled Hearings  |  Search Site