Military Courts and Article III

83 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2014 Last revised: 1 Feb 2015

Date Written: October 9, 2014


The Supreme Court has held that non-Article III federal adjudication is permissible only in the three categories of cases in which the Court has previously allowed it — all cases before federal “territorial” courts; criminal prosecutions in military tribunals; and “public rights” adjudication before non-Article III judicial or administrative bodies. And although the Justices have repeatedly grappled with the outer bounds of this last category in recent years, they have generally accepted the first two as settled. Scholars have followed suit, with virtually all of the extensive literature in the field focusing on the specific scope of the public rights exception, or on the search for cross-cutting theories of Article III.

As a result, it has been decades since any concerted effort has been undertaken to rationalize the scope of the military exception — whether to the Constitution’s text or purpose or to more prudential considerations. And although the similarly neglected territorial courts have remained largely untouched over the past quarter-century, the same period has witnessed significant expansions in the scope of both court-martial and military commission jurisdiction to encompass offenses and offenders not previously thought to be amenable to military, rather than civilian, trials. Given these expansions, the litigation that they have provoked, and the tension they have placed upon the military exception, the time has long since passed for a reassessment of where and how military courts fit into our understanding of Article III — and the exceptions thereto.

This article undertakes such a reassessment. It demonstrates not only that these expansions cannot be reconciled with the underlying justifications for the military exception, but that they only further illuminate a series of deeper puzzles raised — and never answered — by the Supreme Court’s historical articulation of the military exception. As it explains, one way to resolve these puzzles — and to place the military exception on far sounder philosophical, analytical, and constitutional footing going forward — is to appreciate the long-neglected role of international law in at once authorizing and circumscribing departures from Article III. And although this conclusion has already started to emerge in litigation over the Guantánamo military commissions, its implications for courts-martial have not yet been appreciated.

Keywords: Federal Courts, Article III, military courts, courts-martial, military courts, international law, military commissions, Guantanamo

Suggested Citation

Vladeck, Stephen I., Military Courts and Article III (October 9, 2014). 103 Georgetown Law Journal, 2015, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Stephen I. Vladeck (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
5124759198 (Phone)

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