While the United States Constitution states that everyone has the right to a public trial in front of an impartial jury, they’re becoming increasingly rare, at least in New York.
An increasing number of judges in the Southern District of New York – which hears cases in New York, Manhattan, Poughkeepsie, and White Plains – have noticed that criminal jury trials are slowly disappearing, all the way down to an 11-year low of 50 jury trials in 2015. They are expecting a similar number for 2016, a stark difference from the 106 jury trials in 2005.
Legal experts believe that the dramatic drop in the number of jury trials can be directly attributed to an increase in the use of mandatory minimum sentences and new congressional sentencing guidelines. Both of these changes have given prosecutors quite a bit more power in the courtroom while also discouraging defendants from pursuing a trial where they could face substantially worse sentences if they were found guilty.
A 2013 court opinion written by Former Judge John Gleeson commented on the fact that, while guilty pleas made up 81 percent of federal convictions in 1980, that number ballooned up to 97 percent of all federal convictions in recent years. In the opinion, Gleeson wrote about his worries over the weak presentation of evidence during plea deal negotiations, stating that the information is mostly glossed over.
[The evidence] is hardly ever subjected to closer scrutiny by prosecutors, defense counsel, judges or juries…The entire system loses an edge, and I have no doubt that the quality of justice in our courthouses has suffered as a result.”
New York is far from the only state facing these issues. Back in 1997, Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – which has appellate jurisdiction over districts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi – warned people that civil jury trials could disappear in the near future if the change wasn’t addressed. Back then he said that:
“There are certain elites in this country who don’t trust juries. The future of our jury system is very much in danger.”
There were nearly 3,400 jury trials in the year Judge Higginbotham gave his warning, and that number dropped by 64 percent in 2012 where there were less than 1,200 civil jury trials in Texas state district courts. Federal courts had a very similar drop off, falling to 135 civil jury trials in 2012 compared to 360 in 1997.
Lawyers and judges expect this trend to continue unless legislation is passed that tips the balance of power back in favor of jury trials and away from secret proceedings and arbitrations. If nothing is done, then this Constitutional right is at risk of becoming relegated to our history books.
The lawyers at Bailey Cowan Heckaman PLLC are dedicated to pursuing whatever course of action will give our clients the best outcome possible, and that includes remaining ready to take their case to trial. We have successfully faced down multi-billion dollar corporations in the past, and are prepared to continue our aggressive tactics when necessary. Check out our “contact us” page and fill out the online form for a free case evaluation, or give us a call to speak with one of our attorneys today.