Publisher's Note: This article originally appeared in the Beaufort Observer.
Voters will be presented with a proposed constitutional amendment this November 4. If passed by a simple majority of voters, it would amend Article I, Section 24 which would read as follows with the underscored wording being the amendment:
No person shall be convicted of any crime but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court, except that a person accused of any criminal offense for which the State is not seeking a sentence of death in superior court may, in writing or on the record in court and with the consent of the trial judge, waive jury trial, subject to procedures prescribed by the General Assembly. The General Assembly may, however, provide for other means of trial for misdemeanors, with the right of appeal for trial de novo.
The bill that provided for this amendment passed the NC Senate without a dissenting vote and the only no vote in the House was Beaufort County's Rep. Michael Speciale.
Just recently, UNC School of Government (SOG) professor Jeffery Welty and law clerk Komal K. Patel published the best overview and discussion of the proposed amendment and its ramifications we have seen. You can review that report by clicking here
Eva Buck, who is running for Clerk of Court in Beaufort County has made opposition to this Amendment one of her campaign planks. She told us:
I believe that the Judicial System as a whole is not perfect; however, it's by far the best in the free world. My concern is that we are losing our constitutional rights one at the time in the interest of expediency. The perception of the law and Judicial System by a large number of the citizens; is that, if you are poor or from a minority group you don't stand a chance in the Judicial System. If this amendment is passed I am afraid it will prove them correct at the most basic level. With the increase of cases and the push to clear cases as fast as possible, I can see where deals may be offered and made out of haste.
Every citizen no matter if they are the defendant or the victim is entitled to due process. This amendment is not just a problem for the poor or minority groups; even though they will be affected by it the most; this is a problem for every citizen in our State. We must stop this amendment on November 4th, 2014 with a vote of "NO"!/blockquote>Commentary
We have already taken an editorial position on SB 399. We are strongly opposed and urge all voters to vote "NO" on the ballot question.
The authors of the SOG report provide a succinct summary beginning on page iv. As is typical of SOG publications, they do not take a "yes" or "no" position, but give arguments both for and against the amendment. On balance we think the argument against overwhelms the argument for.
But we would go beyond the report's discussion.
We believe, as does Rep. Speciale, that the amendment will result in more behind the scenes negotiated plea bargains that will not be in the best interest of the defendants in many cases, particularly those too poor to employ well-connected law firms to handle their case, nor will it be in the best interest of the public. Moreover, we believe as Beaufort's Dick Adams, a long-time victims' advocate whose son was murdered in an armed robbery in 1982. He has worked tirelessly since then as a victims advocate, having been award a Distinguished Service Award by the prestigious Civitas Institute for his work for victims' rights in the Justice System. Adams told us that the absence of jury trials deprives the victims and their families of their "day in court." He said: "most of the attention is focused on the criminal's rights. And I support protecting everyone's constitutional rights. But what we all too often forget is that the rights of the victims and their families are just as important. And that applies to having a jury trial for the benefit of justice for the victim. Therefore, I strongly oppose this Amendment."
We would argue that in serious felony cases that a jury of twelve citizens is more likely to insure justice for the victim and the public than is a backroom deal between lawyers. Our experience in covering the justice system is that poor defendants with weak lawyers are all too often pressured into pleading guilty to a "lesser offense" by DA's and judges, in cahoots with defense attorneys; and while defeating this amendment will not stop that backroom dealing, its passage would mean that the dealings are likely to grow. The problem, we think, is that there is already too much "lawyer dealing" in the system and this will just increase it.
Our sense is that the jury system is the main reason the public still has any confidence at all in the justice system. And confidence in the system is what is paramount here. We seldom cover a court case that we don't come away feeling that the system is broken, even corrupt, and the chief cause is the "dealings" that go on to "dispose" of cases.
The justice system, including law enforcement, the judicial system at the courthouse level and the corrections system, is in serious trouble in our opinion. We would go so far as to say that we know of no one who seriously believes the system works the way it should most of the time.
And while this may be somewhat hyperbolic in statement, we do not at all believe the system has the essentials to generate the public trust that a "system of laws" has to have. No, we believe most people perceive the justice system as being a system of men and women that is not at all "equal under law." Indeed, that is a part of the reactions we have seen in Ferguson, Missouri. Those without "inside connections" suffer with one system while those well connected pay the piper and walk. It is really as simple as that. This amendment we suspect is simply an outgrowth of that system perpetuating itself.
For that reason, plus all the others, we should send the system a message by voting "NO" on this proposed constitutional amendment.