New Right: Judge Or Jury

Nov 5, 2014


State voters passed a constitutional amendment that would give people accused of a felony a choice to have a judge hear their trial rather than a jury of their peers. The amendment was approved with about 54% of the vote. 

Up until last night's vote, North Carolina stood alone in refusing to allow that choice.  The option will only be available to persons not facing the death penalty. 

State lawmakers introduced the measure in March of 2013.  It passed both the state Senate and House, and was signed by the governor.  That passage put the amendment on the midterm elections ballot to be decided by voters.

Earlier this year, The State of Things explored this issue, and answered some commonly asked questions. Listen to that conversation here.

Conversation highlights:

Why has it taken North Carolina so long to address the issue?

Our appellate courts have interpreted the state constitution as requiring a jury trial, foreclosing the possibility of a trial before a judge. Thus we need a constitutional amendment to make this happen.

Would this apply to all felony cases?

It would not apply to capital cases (those involving the death penalty), but it would apply to all other cases.

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Government have come out with a study looking at potential implications.Those in favor of the amendment cite two main reasons:

  1. Bench trials can be quicker.
  2. Defendants with a long criminal record might not "get a fair shake" before a jury.

Those opposed to the amendment cite these reasons:

  1. If it becomes possible for a defendant to waive their right to a jury trial, they might be pressured to do so. (Prosecutors, in a quest to move cases may overly encourage defendants to waive that right.)
  2. Some defendants, like those with politically connected lawyers, might get unreasonably favorable treatment from a judge. (A federal study found that judges acquitted defendants at three times the rate of a jury trial.)