Busy Courthouses, Few Trials

From NYT columnist Adam Liptak:

Trials are on the verge of extinction. They have been replaced by settlements and plea deals, by mediations and arbitrations and by decisions from judges based only on lawyers’ written submissions. …

Instead of hearing testimony, ruling on objections and instructing jurors on the law, judges spend most of their time supervising the exchange of information, deciding pretrial motions and dealing with settlements and plea bargains. …

Those who have the temerity to “request the jury trial guaranteed them under the U.S. Constitution,” wrote the judge, William G. Young of the Federal District Court in Boston, face “savage sentences” that can be five times as long as those meted out to defendants who plead guilty and cooperate with the government.

The movement away from jury trials is not just a societal reallocation of resources or a policy choice. Rather, as Judge Young put it, it represents a disavowal of “the most stunning and successful experiment in direct popular sovereignty in all history.”

Indeed, juries were central to the framers of the Constitution, who guaranteed the right to a jury trial in criminal cases, and to the drafters of the Bill of Rights, who referred to juries in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments. Jury trials may be expensive and time-consuming, but the jury, local and populist, is a counterweight to central authority and is as important an element in the constitutional balance as the two houses of Congress, the three branches of government and the federal system itself. …

I was on jury duty last week, in a state criminal court in Manhattan. During the orientation on Wednesday, a court officer, with mixed pride and hyperbole, said his was the busiest courthouse in America.

I never saw so much as the inside of a courtroom. After a couple of days of milling around in an assembly room with more than 100 other potential jurors, the State of New York thanked us for our service and sent us home.

For more about how plea bargaining tactics tax the right to jury trial, go here (pdf).

To listen to a talk that Judge Young gave at Cato, go here.