A day in the life of an appellate military judge is, in many ways, similar to that of any other federal or state intermediate appellate court judge. However, in other ways, it differs due to the unique aspects of military trial judges—because most military appellate judges are commissioned officers of their respective military services.
The oldest form of national criminal justice in the United States is the court-martial, predating the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. On June 30, 1775, the Second Continental Congress enacted the American Articles of War and on July 29, 1775, General George Washington established the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The American Articles of War were based on the British Articles of War of 1774, which trace their heritage back to the Swedish Code of Gustavus Adolphus of 1621. From the American Revolution until 1920, the only appellate review of a court-martial in most instances was by the commander who convened the court and his staff.
In 1920, the Articles of War were amended to add Article 50 1/2, which directed the judge advocate general to “constitute, in his office, a board of review consisting of not less than three officers of the Judge Advocate General’s Department.” The board of review’s jurisdiction was limited to legal errors in any court-martial of a general officer, and only certain courts-martial of lower-ranking officers and cadets. For enlisted soldiers, the board of review’s jurisdiction only extended to courts-martial adjudging the death penalty and not even those in time of war. All other courts-martial were reviewed for legal sufficiency by a lawyer in the Office of the judge advocate general or at a lower level.
In 1950, following World War II, during which more than 1.7 million courts-martial were held under the Articles of War and the Articles for the Government of the Navy, Congress replaced both military codes with the single Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ provided for boards of review for each of the armed forces, including the newly formed Air Force. The boards were granted broad power to review court-martial records of trial, determine questions of law and fact, weigh evidence, and reduce sentences. Each Board of Review was composed of three lawyers, typically senior judge advocates. The UCMJ also established the Court of Military Appeals, which was composed entirely of civilian judges, to hear appeals from decisions of the boards of review.
In 1968, the boards of review were renamed the Courts of Military Review. In 1994, the Courts of Military Review were further renamed the Courts of Criminal Appeals (CCAs). At the same time, the Court of Military Appeals was renamed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Since 1984, the decisions of the Court of Military Appeals and, from 1994 on, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces have been subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court.